Book summary of THE POWER OF HABIT Why we do what we do and how to change – by Charles Duhigg.

The power of habit



We live in unconscious habits. These most of the time are beneficial and help us short circuit complexity in decision-making. However, sometimes we get caught into negative habits. The book suggests a simple model to help us understand the forming and breaking of habits: Cue -> Routine -> Reward.  The best way to switch a habit is to stick with the same cue and reward but substitute the routine.


General principles about habits

We live in patterns of behaviour – Research by Duke university has found that over 40% of our behaviours are driven by habits. Habits saves us energy. It creates effortless behaviour.

Habits make for easier decision making – Habits help remove unnecessary decision-making as it takes standard activities and creates short-cuts. Habits reduce the amount of cognitive activity the brain needs (as shown through brain activity scans), allowing the brain to be more engaged in other areas.

Unconscious behaviour – The reality is very little of our behaviours are controlled by our conscious state of thinking. Even if we are aware of the behaviour, we find it very difficult to stop it (as the conscious brain does not have control over that ‘department’.)

Behaviours become self-perpetuating –  Once you have done something one way, then it is more likely you will do it the same way next time. So to build a habit, keep doing it.

Small rewards can create big habits – Only if a behaviour gets rewarded will we use that behaviour pattern again. if it keeps rewarding us then we keep on using it, until it becomes engrained as a habit.

Easy come/hard to go – Habits are fairly easy to develop but devilishly hard to stop. Sometimes it’s easier to develop a new habit than change an older, less healthy one.

The habit cycle – There are good habits and bad habits. Each of these live in a simple cycle: Cue -> Ritual -> Reward. If we can understand what these three  components are in any situation, we  can change behaviours.


Habit cycle

Making new feel like old – Habits take time to develop and you need to support it to ensure it grows. So how do you get people to stay with something unfamiliar? You need to clothe it in familiar stuff long enough for it to become familiar.

Making new feel like old – During the second world war, quality meat for the masses was scarce. So, the US government had to think of ways of getting people to eat organs (liver, kidney, heart etc). The key was to dress the unfamiliar in familiar clothing. Thus, they developed old recipes with these new meats such as steak AND KIDNEY pie.

Sandwiching new in the middle of old – ‘Hey Ya! ‘by Outkast became a massive hit in the summer of 2003. But it took time for the record label Arista to master its success. Radio stations use algorithms to forecast listener’s habits to create their play lists to keep listeners tuned in. Hit song science has deconstructed a new song to predict its likelihood of success. ‘Hey Ya!’ was one of the best performers ever. However, when played out, listeners hated it so much, 1/3rd of people tuned to a different station! That was because it was too different from the stuff that was being played. Thus, they needed to get people used to its difference by sandwiching it between two sticky songs such as ‘Breathe’ by Blu Cantrell (a ‘sticky’ song is one where there is no station change during its playing). That way, people were ‘softened up’ to the song, allowing it to grow on them.

Identity – We become what we constantly do: Identity drives behaviour and behaviour drives identity. Habits create consistent behaviour. And consistent behaviour starts to influence identity (cf the occasional runner who then runs more frequently until they redefine themselves as an athlete). Likewise, negative behaviours also get locked-in through identity. When in groups we identify with, we are very likely to follow the behaviour of that group.

Cultural derived habits – Culture can create the unconscious rules of a society that guides behaviour. This therefore creates habits often through rituals (cf the Church or Alcoholics Anonymous). So, shifting the culture can influence behaviour and instil new habits.

The power of weak ties – Research has shown that we tend to do more for weak ties (i.e. 1-2 people removed – friends of friends) as we want to remain bonded to the stronger ties who are connected to those weaker ties. It’s to do with a sense of social obligation.

The power of weak ties – Rosa Parks protest on the bus in Alabama in December 1955 was not the first of such insurrections. The reason it took off and helped prick a nation’s conscience was the power of her connections across multiple groups. This meant her support rapidly spread. She had what sociologists call ‘weak ties’. They deeply cared for her so were prepared to get involved. People who jump from one network to another are actually more powerful than those at the heart of one group.

The power of weak ties – Rick Warren created one of the largest Christian communities in the world (in Saddleback). He built it from nothing but its success was from encouraging people to take part in small groups. Every new member was assigned to a small group that met every week (they have over 5000 groups). It’s the social pressure of weak ties in these small groups that created the obligation to attend. This transformed people’s behaviour into habits.

Life stages shift behaviours –  The most common reason that creates a habit switch is a change in life stages – e.g. going to college, marriage, losing weight, pregnancy etc. Thus, if you catch people at these life changing stages, offering them enticing promotions, you can potentially install new habits to shop with you for their changing needs.

Life stages triggers new habits – A father was incensed that his daughter was sent special offers on maternity products. Later-on it became clear that she was indeed pregnant. The offers were based on her past purchase habits and web-site searches. Target identify a person based on buyer data (credit card, loyalty card, voucher redemption etc.) and then track their purchases, building up a unique picture of them (they claim to have identified c50% of all in-store sales to specific identified people). They were then able to serve them more relevant offers (and also avoid annoying them with irrelevant offers). For example, if they saw you regularly bought a breakfast cereal from Target, it would mail a special offer for milk (hoping to shift the habit of buying milk elsewhere to buying it alongside your cereal purchases). Target are able to track changes in buyer behaviour to assess changes in life, based on certain key patterns based on historic tracking of other people. Hence, when a person starts buying vitamins (esp. magnesium and zinc), it’s a strong indicator they are pregnant. Target were able to identify 25 different products that suggested a high likelihood of early pregnancy. Furthermore, they worked out what trimester they were in. In the end, they had to disguise the fact they knew so much about a person and surround the pregnancy product offering with more innocuous offerings as well.


Cue – To create a habit, you need to first identify a very specific cue (The cue can be any sensory medium – sight, sound, touch, feeling or smell), then create a powerful reward that can be delivered by the routine inbetween. Research has shown that people are more likely to stick to habits if there is a very clear, specific cue (such as going straight into their bedroom and getting into running gear).

Identifying the cues – Alcoholics Anonymous have helped millions of people. Their 12-step process does not work at a psychological level but at a behavioural level. One of the things they do is list all the cues that trigger them to drink. Then they get them to list all the rewards and benefits they get from the drink. Only then can they develop revised routines to create new habits (such as attending sessions).

 Cue that triggers unconscious routine – Tony Dungy finally got his break to be the head coach of The Buccaneers Football team. His philosophy was simple: Install an unconscious pattern of play, so that the play is fast, effortless and unconscious (and so does not get knocked-off by the stresses of the occasion). He recognised it was very difficult to destroy a habit but easy to modify it. In this case he kept the cue and reward the same, but worked on changing the routine.  This led to endless drills to install the new behaviours.  He locked set routines against set cues. He became the only coach to reach the play-offs in ten consecutive years.

 Cue that triggers unconscious routine – The army drums into people unconscious habits that will be automatically executed without questioning when cued.

Cue that triggers unconscious routine – Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer dealt with his anxiety and nerves by locking himself into tight routines that allowed no room for emotion or thoughts to enter. He drilled himself to become a swimming automaton. In his training, he has even practiced for the unexpected (e.g. swimming in the dark).


Keystone habits – A keystone habit is one that triggers other behaviours/habits. For example, for dieters, food journaling created a structure that helped other habits to flourish. Six months into the study, people who kept daily food records had lost twice as much weight as everyone else.

Keystone habits – Paul O’Neil was appointed the CEO of The Aluminium Company of America (i.e. Alcoa). He set out a controversial vision of making it the safest company in America (a tall order for a company that deals in molten metals everyday). He knew that to change a lot of things he had to have a laser focus on just one thing (and that would ‘sweep up’ the other changes required – as to deliver zero injuries would mean a root and branch restructure of the whole organisation). He knew he had to unite a fractured management and workforce, so chose an area they could all align on. He instilled a culture (i.e. a habit) of continuous and never-ending improvements and he set clear metrics on safety for the organisation and the individual: He allowed any person to shut down a line; He ‘celebrated’ failure (as a way to learn);  He focused on the root cause of failure; He promoted people who fully supported the vision and symbolically fired a senior executive who failed to report a fairly minor incident.

Organisational routines – Sadly in organisations, we often need a disaster to force a change in routines (e.g. The Challenger disaster in 1986).

Identifying habits from failure and breakdown – An arrogant surgeon would not tolerate criticism from ‘lesser’ staff. One day, he operated on the wrong side of a patient’s brain resulting in his death. This (amongst others) led to a change in procedure that allowed anyone in the operating theatre to openly challenge.

When An evolutionary theory of economic change was published in 1982 it was largely ignored, but it contained the essence of why change is so difficult in organisations. Nelson & Winter had trudged through thousands of pages documenting change programmes in organisations and discovered an insight: “Much of a firm’s behaviour is best understood as a reflection of general habits and strategic orientations coming from the firm’s past.”  It may appear an organisation is making rational decisions, but often it is asleep to the patterns of decision making from a past (that has now metamorphosed). It holds onto long term beliefs, values, habits, prejudices, processes and behaviours that lock them out of seeing the new future. This then drives unconsciously the many micro decisions made across an organisation but all its staff. This leads to the organisation seeing only the angle of ‘truth’ the organisation wants to see (and people who suggest alternate truths get mocked, put down or rejected from the organisation). The departmental structures, the processes, the reward systems are all infected by this ‘organisational memory’. Thus, we see that habits help fast track decision-making but they can also become traps.

The book also blows out the myth that organisations are ‘happy families’ with shared common goals. In fact, most organisations are full of fiefdoms and power struggles, where departments focus on their own agendas (and in some cases, try to put other departments down as a way to secure access to the limited resources available). Furthermore, they create peer rivalry to prevent a coup and so reduce the threat to their own position. People ‘learn’ the behaviours of the organisation and when they get to become department heads, further continuing these dynastic behaviours. All this tension is kept at a manageable level (so company civil war does not break out) by other processes and habits. If you were to join an organisation and ask ‘How to get on in this organisation?’, you would not hear what is printed in the joining manual. You would hear of personalities, informal power structures, relational affiliations and conflicts. It would paint a different organisational structure and show the real path of how to get things done. Unless you can make the right connections (and truces) through an organisation (or the stakeholders outside) then you will fail.

Fiefdom’s – One of the reasons behind the Kings Cross Tube disaster in November 1987 was the silo’d attitude the different departments had. It was run by four ‘Barons’. They tolerated each other as long as they did not stray into each other’s territory. There were a lot of ‘unwritten rules’ (such as the fire department would only be contacted in extremis). No-one inside the station knew how the fire sprinkler system worked or was allowed to use the fire extinguishers. The Fire service were not allowed to use the water hydrants underground as no-one had permission to use them. Furthermore, no-one on site had a blueprint of all the tunnels that would have helped the firemen rescue some of the 31 people killed that day. Out of this disaster it created a radical restructuring of the organisation. Likewise, in hospitals and airlines, public disclosure of mistakes is helping to lock-out institutional failure.

Corporate habits – Starbucks prides itself in helping to develop life-skills in its people. In their first year of employment, its new recruits spend at least 50 hours in training. The key skill they develop is self-discipline (Research has shown that self-discipline is a greater predictor of grades than IQ). The key area of discipline was emotional self-control – they want to put a shot of joy (not anger) into every cup – including those stressed-out customers. They taught them how to ‘park’ their own issues & emotions and instead focus solely on their customers. Starbucks identified the key cues, developed alternate routines, and then encouraged the Managers to reward staff who had successfully dealt with a challenging situation. One technique they developed was the LATTE approach: Listen to your customer; Acknowledge their complaint; Take action, before finally Explaining why it happened.

Corporate habits – Deloitte Consulting are taught about how to deal with critical  moments that matter with their clients and colleagues: ‘Get curious -> Say what no-one else will -> Apply the 5/5/5 rule in how to respond’.


Reward – If you want to develop a habit, the reward must significantly outweigh the costs for you to keep on doing it (committed runners talk about the real sense of personal achievement they get from running).

Identifying the reward – In Iraq, a commanding officer noticed the pattern of behaviours around violence. The longer the crowd stayed together the more likely it would eventually escalate to violence. He noticed that what held people there was the food and drink vendors that would appear. He therefore stopped these sellers coming, which led to a rapid dispersement of the rioters.

Cue Vs Reward – When Fabreze was first launched it flopped. They discovered that people in smelly homes do not notice the smell (thus the cue of poor odour did not trigger use of the product). They identified people instead used Fabreze as a reward (the cue being the tidied house rather than bad smells).

Identifying the rewards – A women suffering from severe nail biting was invited to record the number of times she was cued to bite her nails. This helped bring her attention to something which most times was unconscious. Then the therapist asked her to identify the rewards she got from biting them. She then gave her a ‘competing routine’ – i.e. every time she felt bored, she was to put her hands under her legs (thus creating a physical stimulation/reward similar to biting).

Discovering the right reward – The YMCA commissioned data analysts to help them improve the habit of training in their gyms. They found it was the human connection that was the real reward that made them come back.

Create craving through anticipation – To lock people in a habit you need to make the reward random in delivery. Research has shown brain activity lifts up before the reward – i.e. they anticipate the reward. When that reward is then NOT received it creates a CRAVING that amplifies the desire of the reward. That sense of disappointment becomes even more powerful than the pleasure of the reward – so they keep doing the activity to remove that pain of disappointment. This can lead to obsessive compulsive behaviour – where the rat keeps pressing the lever, the gambler keeps playing, or the golfer keeps swinging. Scientists have found that habits create similar craving reactions addicts have to their drug.

Anticipation/Craving – Claude Hopkins is one of the key admen who first started using these principles in his advertising. In the 1930’s he revolutionised the health habits with Pepsodent by recognising an unexploited cue (the film on your teeth) and linked it to a powerful reward (cool tingling sensation). The key was to create an ANTICIPATION of the reward as that builds the power of the reward. They created a craving for that cool tongue tingling sensation.

Reward: Creating anticipation – Ads create habits: The music, the imagery etc. (i.e. cues) gets linked to a routine (e.g. buying/consuming their product) with the promised reward bought to life in a dramatic, enticing way. You only need to cue the MacDonald’s arches to start salivating over the thought of their French Fries. You see an ad (say of Marlboro cigarettes) and it makes you think of the future rewards it offers you.

Almost wins – Reza Habib, a cognitive neuroscientist asked twenty-two people to lie inside an fMRI  machine and watch a slot machine spin round. Half of the participants were pathological gamblers while the other half were people who gambled socially but didn’t exhibit any problematic behaviours. The slot machine was programmed to deliver three outcomes: a win, a loss, and a ‘near miss’ (in which the slots almost matched up but failed to align). To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. People without a gambling problem were better at recognising that a near miss means you still lose. This is why gambling organisations often set-up machines to give you an ‘almost win’ (as that encourages them to keep on playing).

Changing habits

The difficulty in breaking habits – The issue with habit is they become so ingrained, so powerful that even if we have a conscious awareness that they are not good for us, we cannot seem to stop doing them. Once the cue has been fired we are slaves to the habit. You can’t extinguish a habit, you can only change it.

Breaking bad habits – Angie Bachmann (pseudonym) was getting bored at home. So, she started visiting the local casino, initially gambling small amounts that she could afford to lose. After a while she got good, making a fair return ($6K one time, $2K another time). This led her to start gambling more frequently with bigger bets. However, after a while she started losing. She gambled harder, borrowing money to try to re-win her loses. The first time round she clocked up debts of $20K. She stopped, rebuilt her life but at one point the cue was so strong she was re-triggered back into her bad habits again. One day alone she lost $250K. She had inherited her parent’s estate, but lost it all to gambling. She calculated she lost in total $900K.

Belief – Belief is critical to change a habit (if you think you can’t change, you won’t). So, to change a habit you must believe you can change. Part of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous programme is a belief in a higher order to help. It helps recovering alcoholics deal with the inevitable glitches along the way.

Willpower – Changing habits is hard and takes time. Therefore, you need to persist and not give-up at the first failure.

Developing willpower – Willpower is learnable. Students were split into two teams to test their willpower.  They were both given two plates: a plate of cookies and a plate of radishes. One group was told to eat the cookies but resist the radishes. The other team told the opposite. They were then told to wait 15 minutes for next stage of the test. in the meantime, there was a simple puzzle they had to solve (in reality it was very difficult). Those who had eaten the cookies and ‘resisted’ the cookies tended to stay with the puzzle for 60% longer, suggesting our willpower gets weakened (e.g. when tired, drunk or emotional). This led the scientist to conclude that willpower is like a muscle. It can easily get exhausted but with exercise it can develop. They also found willpower developed in one area does spill over into others. Thus, sports or taking up a musical instrument teaches you self-discipline that is transferrable into other areas of life.

How to change habits – The book suggests four stages:

  • Raising the habit to consciousness – identify the routine – When in a habit, we are often unconscious of the behaviours. Hence to change a habit we need to raise our conscious awareness of exactly what we are doing. The first stage is to recognise the habit loop we are caught in (Cue -> Behaviour -> Reward). The easiest part of the pattern to change is the behaviour – as long as you keep the other two elements the same.
  • Isolate the cue – All routines are triggered by a cue. Cancel the cue and you stop the routine. Take for example, emails. If you switch off the inbox ‘ping’ cue, you take away the compulsive routine of constantly checking your system. The issue is the cue is often clouded by many other elements happening at the same time. There are five categories cues typically fall into: Location, Time, Emotional state, Other people, Immediate preceding action. Every time you feel the urge (or catch yourself in the act), write down what the cue might be in each of the five areas.
  • Experiment with some rewards – To overcome a habit we must understand which craving is driving the habit. The key is to identify the real need/benefit – e.g. is hitting the biscuits to do with boredom or low sugar level? You will need to try different behaviours to see what fits into your life and critically to see if it gives you a similar/better level of reward. If it does not, then it is unlikely to be a satisfactory replacement. Clearly you can ‘supplement’ a reward (e.g. you give yourself an additional treat). The author suggests writing down how you think/feel immediately after the activity. They suggest leaving it for fifteen minutes before doing any other activity that might trigger the reward. This helps let you know if the behaviour you are testing really did deliver the reward you needed.
  • Have a plan – Develop a clear strategy in advance of the cue. If/When…(Cue)…Then…(Behaviour) -> Reward. Then try it out. Sometimes it may work better than other days. But the more you try it, the more likely you will ‘scratch’ out the old behaviour and replace it with a more empowering habit.


This is an optimistic book. “Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom — and the responsibility — to remake them”.

It is full of interesting anecdotes and scientific evidence that keeps you turning the pages. That said, the book does meander a bit (making things into ‘habit’ when we would not normally describe them as such – e.g. socialised behaviour).

However, the key issue is the book’s overly simplistic model to habit change. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet (though intensive treatments and support can work). We assume that by ‘plugging-in’ the co-ordinates of the model that we can then control behaviour. So, the key question we need to ask ourselves: If you follow this will you get change? Behaviour change is usually much more complex than that. Take eating too much. In theory when we get the cue (e.g. an emotion) we then switch eating chocolate for a banana (as both release a sugar hit), but we know it does not work as simply as that. Foresight’s obesity system map suggests otherwise:


Also, there are other ways to change habits (E.g. laws – cf seat belt wearing in cars). Furthermore, all the summaries of behavioural economics demonstrate the power of often unconscious’s influences on our behaviour.

That said, The Power of Habit is an enjoyable book, and readers will find it useful – even if only to understand why they do some of those ‘cookie’ things they do.








Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Book summary of Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini

Summarised by Paul Arnold – Marketing/Comms Strategist

The book in a nutshell

The highest achievers spend time crafting what they did and said before making their pitch.

Research has shown that unconscious priming can help ‘pre-frame’ a person to think in a certain way.

The basic principle of pre-suasion is all about the front-loading of attention. By guiding initial focus it’s possible to influence the audience.

The book explores a wide range of ways of ‘pre-framing’ people.

“The readiness is all” Hamlet Act 5 Scene 2

The book

Great persuaders spend time upfront creating a positive psychological frame before trying to influence. They recognise that the ‘pre-sell’ is of equal importance as the sell itself.

The ‘pre-sell’ can help prime people to think in a certain way that is supportive of your argument.

Cialdini identified six key principles from his first book: Reciprocation, Liking, Social proof, Authority, Scarcity and Consistency. Cialdini proposes that you can magnify the power of these by inferencing them in the set up. For example, if using authority is your key angle of influence, suggesting the idea of authority beforehand (in say a personal story) helps focus attention onto authority.

Priming – A Toronto based consultancy in pitching would say, “As you can tell, I’m not going to be able to charge you a million dollars for this…” helped ensure his $75,000 fee was acceptable.

Priming – In an experiment, the amount of money a person would be prepared to spend at a restaurant goes up if called Studio 97 as opposed Studio 17.

Focusing attention – the key tenet of pre-suasion is to drive attention in a certain direction that sets a person up to be persuaded. Since we live in a world of hyper-distractions, the more we can influence what the person is focusing on, the greater the chance of persuasion.

 “The press might not be successful most of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling them what to think about” – Bernard Cohen

 The book reveals a wide range of techniques to try to gain and keep focus:

Power of questions – Questions direct our attention. Thus, the initial prompt makes the brain travel in that direction. So be aware of the bias in any question.

Questions – Any question forces a focus. In an experiment Canadians were asked either “Are you happy with your social life?” or “Are you unhappy with your social life?”. What you ask is what you get. Unhappy focused questioners then seek out experiences in their life that fit with the question. Surprise surprise they find them and so declare themselves to be unhappy. The opposite of course happens to those asked if they are happy with their social life.

 Pre-questions – To encourage shoppers to take part in a questionnaire, the sales people pre-suaded with an opening question, “Excuse. do you regard yourself as a helpful person?” Volunteer rates rose from 29% to 77%. Likewise, to get people to try a new product/provide contact details they asked people if they considered themselves to be adventurous (33% -> 77%).

Co-creation – A sub-form of question. The more someone can be involved in the development of a proposal, the more likely they will ‘buy’ into it, and commit to making it happen.

Asking advice – Likewise, if you ask advice then people are more conducive to being persuaded (than by didactic lecturing). Gaining their input is a key step to influence as we create a ‘merging’ of ideas.

Saliency – What is salient (i.e. front of mind) becomes important (even if it is not important). Research has shown that it is not necessary the most pertinent issue that influences but that which captures the most attention (cf Kahneman’s WYSIATI – What you see is all there is). Thus, it’s not always a case of driving behaviour change through shifting beliefs or attitudes but through merely raising saliency.

In the Cyanide/Tylenol infected crisis in 1982, the infected batches were identified to be lots 2880 and 1910. Surprisingly, these numbers then got played on the lottery at unprecedented levels. Not because people have some perverted sense of humour, but because unconsciously these have entered into their focus.

What’s focal is what’s causal – Thinking is linking. Anything ‘in field’ can play a role in influence – it’s all taken into account.

 Leaders are attributed much greater causal responsibility for the success (or failure) of a company – because they are the focal point of an organisation.

 In an experiment, people were asked to observe a conversation between a man and women from one of the two people’s perspectives. They were then asked who was more influential in the conversation, the respondents always felt it was the person whose face they were looking at.

 Blinkered attention – We find it really difficult to focus on more than one thing at a time Therefore, when you engage the brain with one concept, you reduce its attention onto something else. Like the magician, who makes you focus on one hand (you are then distracted from seeing what he is doing with his other hand).

The American administration, to deflect attention away from ‘Weapons of mass destruction’, invited journalists to live alongside the combat units. This meant they focused on human interest stories (93% of all stories filed) and tended to forget the bigger issues (2% stories covered WMD).

Disruption – When we change things, we create a disruption from the normal, that shifts attention.

Editors in film put in cuts, music shifts, silence etc. to drive focus.

Milton Erikson, the famous psychotherapist would deliberately lower his voice when he wanted to emphasise something. The patient then has to lean forward, creating greater focus.

Using the different senses – Any of the senses can be used to stimulate attention. For example, auditory.  Use of different language can trigger different areas of focus (cf how business often uses the language of war – battle, conquest, target etc.).

If you are trying to encourage people to think rationally, then using words like “What do you think about…?” will help prime that part of the brain versus “How do you feel about…?’.

Likewise, the use of music, or any emotional arousing stimulus (like photos) will start to influence that part of the brain to be more dominant immediately preceding it. Conversely you do not want to use stirring music if your argument is best won logically.

Emotion – The more emotionally charged something is, the greater the attention it creates. We always see a contagion of stories in the press after one event as our attention is drawn towards it.

When we are in a good mood, all things look rosier (and vice versa). Hence why given an unexpected welcomed gift raises tipping levels:

Unexpectedness – Diners were offered a piece of chocolate at the end of a meal. Tips went up by 3%. However, when the waitress invited them to take two chocolates each, tips rose to 14%. However, if the waitress gave one, left the table, then came back and offered them another, such was the unexpectedness tips rose by 21.3%.

Specific emotions have extra high potency such as sex and fear:

Sex – Sex attracts attention and is a well-used ploy in advertising. However, it is only relevant for products about attractiveness as it’s about capturing and then focusing attention.

Fear – As a rule, presenting the negative consequences works better than emphasising the positive benefits. However, to maximise its impact, you should offer an easy step to a solution (so as not to leave the audience in a place of stress and hence denial).

When 9/11 tragically took place, people abandoned planes and drove. Sadly, an extra 1,600 Americans died in car accidents as a direct result – six times more than the numbers killed in the only US plane crash in the following year.

Getting past ‘System 2’ – When tired, the logical brain (what Kahneman called System 2) cannot resist the pressure of the emotional brain (System 1). Likewise, if rushed, overloaded, preoccupied, stressed or indifferent, then critical (logical) thinking goes out the window.

Research found that well rested Soldiers would question orders to fire on hospitals. But when sleep deprived they would meekly obey. Similarly, in Police interrogation, people would confess (often to the wrong things) when sleep deprived. Interviews that have led to false confessions often last more than sixteen hours (vs four).

People had to choose from three cameras. One camera was expert rated best on eight out of twelve criteria, suggesting a clear advantage over the others. When people were given just 2 seconds per criteria, only 17% choose the clear winner. When given 5 seconds, 38% get it right and when unlimited time, it went up to 67%.

Authority/Expertise – Likewise the authority/expertise of someone will cause us to pay more attention to them than to others. The messenger IS the message. Who says is what makes what they say more powerful.  Again our ‘laziness’ in decision-making means we often blindly believe in the wisdom of experts and authority (and so rarely challenge them). Thus, if you want to influence, you should first ‘pre-sell’ your audience on your own expertise/authority.

Trustworthiness – If we trust someone we are much more likely to listen to them, believe in what they say and follow their advice (and vice versa if you don’t trust them). Trust is a hard-won concept that takes time to acquire. However, the authors suggest one way of quickly generating trust: Reveal a weakness. Rather than trying to suggest everything is perfect in your proposal/offering, it’s better to ‘come clean’ on an aspect that is not perfect. This honesty opens up trust. If there is an issue that you know your audience will pick on, it’s worth highlighting it yourself. Ideally when expressing the weakness, you soften its impact with a suggested way of resolving it.

Revealing a weakness – At a restaurant do you trust the waiter who says everything is great on the menu, or the one who says, “Personally, I’d avoid the lamb…”

Trust – A highly successful salesmen would say he had accidentally left something in his car, and would it be okay for him to let himself in/out of their house? The insight was that no-one lets a person in/out of their own house unless there is some level of trust.

Countering a flaw – “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble women BUT I have the heart of a King, and the King of England too!’ – Queen Elizabeth I – Her speech to the troops at Tilbury in 1588 when preparing for the expected invasion from Spain.

Counter-arguments are often more powerful than arguments This is because it not only devalues the argument but also brings into question the trust in the other person

Liking – The more you like a person, the more attention you will give them (and vice versa if you do not like them).

Compliments engender liking. They nourish us emotionally.

“I can live for two months on a good compliment” – Mark Twain.

Chinese students who received a flyer complimenting them (“We are contacting you because you are fashionable and stylish”) were more likely to shop at the retailer.

People are more likely to ‘accept’ your reply if you say “That’s a great question!”

Background – The background may appear unimportant but unconsciously it gets noticed and thus can influence. Hence where an ad appears, which shops a product is sold in etc. all become background influences.

Places can also influence. Sometimes a change of venue opens up our thinking. Thus merely ‘dressing’ a room for a meeting can change the mindset of those who attend

An on-line store selling mattresses received very different sales results depending if they had clouds in the background versus pennies.

Product placements – Including products in familiar shows leads to positive associations. But research has shown that the most obvious ones gets ‘discounted’ as the viewer recognises the commercial relationship. However, subtle placement influences buyer perception more because they worked their magic unconsciously.

Evaluation – Merely inviting someone to evaluate a brand (without telling them what makes your offering better) will lead to increased persuasion as they will now have directed attention.

In an experiment, managers were asked to evaluate in more detail only one of four different strategic options. Without fail, they recommended the option they had evaluated.

Another way is to deliberately invite comparison with other competitors that helps dramatically bring to focus your point of difference:

In an experiment, a pair of sofas were compared (Dream and Titan). Both were similar except for the cushions (Dream’s were softer, Titan’s harder). In the tests, people preferred the sturdier cushions of Titan (58% vs 42%). A second group were then shown four sofas. Three of them had the same hard cushions as Titan. So now Dream (the only one with softer cushions) stood out as being different, leading to a shift in persuasion (77% in favour of Dream).

Self-Relevancy – We are automatically drawn to anything to do with us (cf mentioning your name is often enough). Data is allowing us to more closely identify what is specifically relevant to a person, to more personalise the message to them.

Curiosity – Curiosity is a powerful magnet to both capture and hold your attention (watch any ‘soap’ and you’ll see it at work at the end of every episode).

In research, the ad that was recalled was the one that was stopped 5 seconds before it was due to end. This memory recall lasted two weeks later.

One strategy developed by Somerset Maugham (who found it very difficult to write) was to finish his work half-way through a paragraph. Then he found it easier to pick up the next day. Likewise, Cialdini starts his lectures with an enigma (which he would not answer until the end).

Sharpness – The more concrete, vivid and real we can communicate something to someone the greater its ability to capture our attention as well as to influence (as they really ‘get it’). Conversely, if you make language too flowery, or too full of technical language, or use a difficult to read typeface/colour, then this diminishes its ‘cognitive ease of processing’.

An analysis of 89 randomly selected companies on the NYSE found that in initial trading of stocks, those companies with easier to pronounce names outperformed those with difficult to pronounce names.

Fund raisers were shown one of two pieces of communication about the value of contributing to the cause they would be soliciting for. One group were given it on a simple piece of paper, whilst the other group also had a photo of a person winning a race. The race winners group raised 60% more donations.

Metaphor – We are lazy thinkers and will often drop into metaphors/similes/analogies to help us make sense of things. Thus, suggesting something is like something else can heavily influence our mindset/focus. If you describe crime as a ‘spreading virus, infecting the city’, it will create more support (as well as drive a specific type of action).

“If you want to change the world, change the metaphor” – Joseph Campbell

Social proof – People are powerful influences – We are unconsciously seduced by other people’s behaviour. It’s the wisdom of the crowd. The greater the consensus (or risk), the safer/more likely we will follow that decision.

The best way to sell a dish in a restaurant is the describe it as ‘Most popular’. This makes dishes between 13-20% ordered more frequently. Likewise, Internet retailers use the power of social proof as well to drive sales (‘Other people who bought x also bought y’).

Validity –  If an energy provider says “You could save £xx” it is less effective than if you say “Others in your road ARE saving” as it is then more real credible.

Contagious behaviour – A Tennessee high school teacher reported a smell of gas. A hundred people went to the hospital that day with symptoms of gas inhalation. However, no gas leak was ever found. Likewise, a lecture on dermatology got all the students scratching.

Stereotypes – Due to our lazy thinking we drop into ‘heuristics’ – i.e. shortcuts. Stereotypes are one of these. Use of them guide our perception and thinking without any critical intervention.

Behaviour – Getting people to do certain things in advance can help precondition them for the next event.

In an experiment, it was found that people who had played violent video games were more prepared to deliver loud blasts of noise into another person’s ear. Likewise, those who had participated in prosocial games were then more prepared to help others afterwards (like cleaning up afterwards).

Reciprocation – If someone has done something for us unconditionally, we feel socially bound to ‘repay’ them – so will be more open to their influence (Research has shown that children as young as 2 have learned the rules)

Pre-giving – A hotel put a sign in the room that the hotel had made a gift to an environmental charity. This led to a 47% uplift in towels being recycled (versus when the message said the hotel would make a donation).

Reciprocation – Abu Jandal, Osama Bin Laden’s chief body guard refused to reveal information. After a while the interrogators noticed he did not eat the cookies. Further investigation revealed he was diabetic. So, they gave him sugar-free biscuits. This act of unexpected generosity partly paved the way for him to start sharing information.

Consistency – We all like to be consistent with our commitments and what we say. Therefore, in the pre-sell stage. If you can get your audience to commit to one small step (in the direction you want), then it dramatically increases your chance of success.

Priming honesty upfront – Insurance companies can reduce policyholder’s misreporting by getting people to sign an honesty pledge before they start to fill in the claims form.

Verbalising commitment – A blood donors service increased participation from 70% to 82.4% by getting people to verbalise their commitment by saying, “So we’ll mark you down as coming then?“ PAUSE TO CONFIRM.



Cialdini believed there is now a seventh principle to stack alongside his original six.

We listen to and respond better to people who are ‘like us’ (and less well to people who are ‘not like us’). It’s about shared identities. Our desire to belong means we seek out and try to ‘bond with others like us (as keeps us ‘safe’ and protected.

There are a number of ways of driving greater ‘unity’:

Similarities – Rapport often comes from similarities. People are more prepared to do things for people they share some common feature with – be it nationality, name, birthday, star sign, sports team etc. It creates a closer ‘us-ness’. Even using the same words, they use can increase likeness We even prefer brands that share the same letters in the alphabet as our name.

Kinship – Any way that we can invoke ‘we-ness’ will help pull people together (and means the opportunity to influence is greater. Thus, words like ‘Brothers’, ‘Sisters’, ‘Motherland’, ‘Heritage’, and ‘Our sovereignty’ will all increase the collective ‘us-ness’.  Likewise, to imply that another presenter is ‘not like us’ alienates them and reduces their power of influence.

Sameness – In the late 1930’s, the Japanese were accepting displaced Jews. In July 1940, 200 Jews queued outside the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania. The Consul General, Chiune Sugihara, signed their transit orders in open defiance of his seniors back in Japan. In the end, he helped save thousands of Jews – something that ultimately cost him his career – because he saw their ‘sameness’ rather than their difference.

Identification with each other – In 1942, after Japan had allied itself to Germany, there was pressure from the Reichstag to get rid of the Jews. When seniors of the Japanese High command consulted with Jewish leaders they asked, “Why do the Germans hate you so much?” Rabbi Kalisch replied, “Because we are Asians – like you”. That one statement cemented their ‘us-ness’ and Japan protected its Jewish community.

Shared behaviours – In the Soviet controlled Warsaw during the 60’s there was a lot of ceremonies, marches, pageants and general flag waving. The people were encouraged to attend and take part. Even though conditions were difficult, there was a shared camaraderie and ‘togetherness’ – a sense of pride in their nation. Thus songs, rituals, dances etc. all help create a sense of cohesion. Our general desire to belong means we will unconsciously also adopt many of the beliefs and values of that group that we want to belong to. The more you want to belong to that group, the greater the unconscious power to conform (you often find the more extreme zealots are outside on the edge of a group rather than necessarily at the centre – such is their desire to be accepted in).

Behaviour starts to pull people together. Those people who do the same thing are more likely to see themselves as one (versus other who do other things). Thus, the more you can get people to do the same thing then it’s more likely they will feel a greater sense of connection. Even very simple acts (like tapping together, singing a song together or walking in the same way) can create temporary togetherness.

Co-operation – In exercises where people have to co-operate (versus exercises where pitted against each other), those working together saw their partner to be more like them.

Arthur and Elaine Aron came up with a questionnaire that helped ensure greater success in building relationships. It involved asking 36 questions, where both have to answer before moving on. The questions start quite shallow (such as “What constitutes a perfect day for you?”) before going deeper and deeper (to questions such as “Of all the people in your family, whose death would be the most disturbing?”). This creates a shared exposure and opening up to the other person at a level not normally experienced with many other people. (

The ethics of persuasion

Cialdini admits to having been criticised in the past for providing unscrupulous people with tools to manipulate others.

Certainly, these principles likewise can be misused for the wrong issues. Cialdini counters (weakly) that he raises their awareness so we can protect ourselves against their use. He also rightly stresses It is unrealistic to expect applying pre-suasion is a guaranteed way to influence. The principles discussed here will work primarily at the margins on influence.

In a WikiLeaks, hyper transparent world, we need to do the right thing as we will be found out. Trust is hard won and easily lost (cf VW).

People who work in unethical companies also suffer: Lower performance levels, higher anxiety, greater sick days, higher staff turnover etc., The cost of these quickly mount up (especially if you include cost of litigation, hiring fees, increased wages to attract people etc.).



This is essentially another book on Behavioural Economics, focused on the principle of ‘priming’.

I found it a bit of a dull book to read (probably as read too many other similar books).

The book is a bit ‘flabby’ with lots of fill and repetition. It’s not a well-structured book (it took me ages to ‘edit’ it down into a more coherent piece).

As always, we need to take what is said with a degree of skepticism. Just because there is one piece of evidence (an experiment or whatever) that supports the hypothesis, that does not mean it is conclusively proven. There could well be many counter examples/experiments that either refute, or support an alternate hypotheses.




Posted in Behaviour change, Behavioural Economics, Decision making, Persuasion/Influence | Leave a comment

Grit – The power of passion and perseverance By Angela Duckworth (Summarised by Paul Arnold, Strategic Planner,Facilitator and Trainer)

gritThe book in a nutshell

Grit is a key factor for success in life. Grit is a mindset of not giving up. It gives us the staying power to push on through the trials and tribulations and remain dedicated to the cause (that eventually leads to mastery and success).

Grit can be learned (but is often imprinted in us from our parents and culture). We need a belief that failures and setbacks are just learning lessons to catapult ourselves forward.

The driving engine of grit comes from having a compelling purpose that is deeply important for us (and in many ways defines us). It is further enhanced if what we are doing is also of value to other people. This helps galvanise and focus our efforts on the end goal without being distracted by the inevitable upsets and failures along the way.

A key to skill mastery is ‘deliberate practice’ as then we make incremental steps of improvement every time.

The book

At Westpoint (The US Military Academy) 14,000 students apply. Only 1200 people meet the rigorous academic, physical and psychological standards to be admitted. Yet 20% of them will drop out before graduation. So after all the testing, why do 240 fail each year? Research has shown they lacked grit (i.e. a ‘never give up’ mentality). Grit is a key factor behind many successful people (in business, arts and sport). Grit is the mental toughness to keep on pushing through the tedium, the tough times and the failures. Most successful people failed before they succeeded. It was their tenacity and determination to not give up that led to their eventual success.

The reality is all people are unlucky some of the time (and lucky some of the time). Successful people accept the swings and roundabouts of life and do not give up. Indeed they tend to use the downers as a motivator to push on through.

The author developed a grit scale (here is a shortened version).

To calculate your score, add your score and divide by 10. The higher the score the higher your grit. 

The authors research showed a strong correlation between academic level (e.g. MBA, PhD etc) and grit.


Talent versus Effort 

Talent is over-rated. Everyone has some predisposition to be good at something. But it takes hard work to turn raw talent into achievement. Many people with talent have failed to capitalise on their innate abilities.

Harvard Psychologists William James asserts, “Compared to where we ought to be, we are only half awake…We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources…the human individual lives usually far within his limits

Conversely, many people with limited ability have developed talent by putting in the hard yards. Grit defines ‘staying power’. It’s about perseverance to a cause. So whilst it is not necessarily a guarantee of success, we know (to quote Woody Allen) “80% of success is just showing up”.

Darwin was a ‘plodder’ rather than being an intellect. But it was his love of his subject that kept him engaged longer than others.

The problem is we live in a culture that rewards ‘natural talent’ (especially intelligence) versus the hard worker. Our TV shows and sport stadiums celebrate innate, raw talent.  Organizations likewise have focused on hiring the brightest (often from the best universities) and culling aggressively the less talented (‘up’ or ‘out’).

The trouble with focusing just on talent is that it rewards the 1% and dis-incentivises the 99%. Research suggests constant effort dedicated to one area is more influential on success than our genes.

Dedicated Focused effort

Excellence is achieved rarely in leaps, but small incremental steps, spread over a long period of time, and gained from endless practice. The reality is they acquired greatness through dedicated, long-term focus.

Nietzsche once wrote, “Great things are accomplished by those people whose thinking is active in one direction”. There is not enough time to do everything we want to do. If we want to excel, we need to focus (and thus let go/de-prioritise other things).

Letting go: Award winning chef, Marc Vetri was initially interested in music. At music college, he had to get a job to fund his education. After a while he fell in love with cooking, and focused his energies there. 

Dedicated focus: Warren MacKenzie is a celebrated potter. When younger he experimented with many different art forms until eventually he fell in love with ceramics. His passion for pottery meant he was happier to give-up the other art forms and dedicate his time to perfecting the art of pottery. He knew success would not be found in dabbling but having a searing focus on one thing. He said, “The first 10,000 pots were difficult, and then it got a lot easier”.

Duckworth came up with a simple model:

1) Talent x Effort = Skill

2) Skill x Effort = Achievement

Hard work really matters. Talent by itself will lead to nowhere. We need to work hard to turn talent into skill.  When we have skill we then need to work even harder to rise above the many others who also have skill to attain mastery (that then leads to achievement).

Turn it around. If we lack talent in an area we need to make even more effort to reach the same level of skill as someone who has lots of natural talent.

Hard work: Will Smith, the Oscar winning actor once said, “I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented. Where I excel is a ridiculous, sickening work ethic…The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is: I’m not afraid to die on the treadmill. I will not be outworked. Period.You might have more talent than me. You might be smarter than me. You might be sexier than me…But if we get on that treadmill together there’s two things: You’re getting off first or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.”

Deliberate Practice

Kaizen is the Japanese for CANI – Constant and Never Ending Improvement. It’s a continuous drive to progress (and not become complacent).

People who practice more, generally do better in things. But it all depends on the quality of practice. Some people have 20 years of experience whilst others have one year of experience repeated 20 times. Thus practice is much deeper than just the hours spent – it’s more about the quality of those hours. The key seems to be deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice means having a real focus, with deep awareness, and concentration during our training sessions (so that there is a very active ‘feedback loop’ in operation allowing us to improve every time). Each session is purposeful (leading up to our higher goals) often with specific objectives for each session. First we have a stretch goal (some high level ambition – e.g. winning Gold). Then we break it down into manageable training objectives/milestones (e.g. be at x speed by y). Then each session builds a particular area of expertise (e.g. working on leg lift, eye focus etc) zeroing-in on just one aspect of our overall performance.  We need to be really focused on feedback so we know if we are achieving our objectives. Every session is an opportunity to learn and grow. Every session not learnt from is a wasted session.

Deliberate practice takes a lot of effort. It’s easy not to push ourselves, but that’s not how a muscle is built. It takes straining (not just training) to build the skills to perform at the highest levels. As one coach said, “They need to learn to love the burn”.

Quantity of quality: Rowdy Gaines, the three-times Olympic gold medal swimmer swam ‘around the world’ in practice for a 49 second race! The reality is the people who also swam in that final had also swam a similar distance. It was won in the quality of those miles, not the quantity.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheeks-sent-me-high) focuses on the state of high performance where the individual is ‘in flow’. It’s a state of almost unconscious action, where the body (rather then the conscious brain) runs the show. Actions are effortless, more fluid and natural unlike the clumsy interventions of the under-evolved conscious part of our ‘intellectual’ brain (unconscious competence versus conscious competence).

“You feel as though you do not exist…my hand seems devoid of myself. I have nothing to do with what is happening….and the music just flows out of me” – Conductor

“It was just one of those programs that clicked…it’s almost as if you don’t have to think, everything goes automatically” – Ice skater.

These periods of ‘flow’ are intoxicating and addictive as we touch (briefly) a higher level of ‘self’.

Thus there are two stages: A very conscious state of practice that then leads to an unconscious state of flow. It would appear that people who undertake deliberate practice experience more frequent periods of flow. It’s through strained effort in practice they can perform in a very relaxed, almost effortless, fluid way in the heat of battle.

Passionate purpose drives perseverance

Life is short. Follow your passion”, said Will Shortz, Editor for New York Times. Jeff Bezos told Princeton Graduates, “If you’re not passionate about what it is you’re working on, you won’t be able to stick to it.” Successful people love what they do. They rarely do it for the money but for the intrinsic reward it brings them (and because they are excellent at it, they make money from it).

Yet a recent Gallup poll revealed that more than two thirds of people were not engaged in their work. The same was found across 141 different nations to varying levels. Indeed, when questioned, few people could tell them what they were truly passionate about.

Grit has two components: passion and perseverance. Without the passion, we will not have the perseverance to keep on pushing through all the monotony and downturns. Passion needs to be enduring and not fleeting. It’s something we need to care about deeply. It’s important to us. Indeed its purpose starts to define us. Achieving this goal is not just a ‘nice to have’- it’s a real ‘imperative’

Looking back at the grit questionnaire, add up all the odd numbers (and divide by 5) to get a ‘passion’ score and all the even numbers (and divide by 5) to get a perseverance score.

Evidence: A Stanford Psychologist, Catharine Cox analysed 301 exceptional achievers from their biographies. She coded their reported traits (from intelligence though to extroversion). From there she drew correlations to try to work out the difference that made the difference. Cox found a leading trait: Persistence of motive (i.e. persistence driven by passion).

Passion and perseverance need direction to make them purposeful. That is why we need a goal to aim for. Without a target the passion will be wasted. Having a goal not only helps drive action but it further strengthens the passion and resolve.

Defined by your passion: Hall of fame pitcher, Tom Seaver, had 311 wins to his name with 3,640 strikeouts. During his 20 year baseball career he aimed to “pitch the best I possibly could day after day, year after year…Pitching is what makes me happy. I’ve devoted my life to it”. Often by focusing on the small things the big things come.

The trouble with goals is they can feel too lofty – too big, too distant to either believe or achieve. We therefore need to set interim, stepping stone objectives along the way – ones that stretch yet are still achievable (but ultimately lead to our goals). We need to analyse what are the obstacles, and then work out our strategies to get past them. That said the goal should be immoveable but the strategies need to flex (as with any long journey, detours are inevitable) – so we should write the goal in pen and the strategies in pencil.

The ability to adapt to win: Roz Chast, the celebrated cartoonist contributed 571 cartoons over his career to the New Yorker. From an early age he wanted to be one of the best cartoonists in the world. But it did not happen over night.  He had enough rejection letters from the New Yorker to paper his bathroom. So he changed his strategy. He analysed all the cartoons in the new Yorker going back to 1925 to work out what was the missing ingredient. He found all the cartoons had a personal style. Also they made people ‘re-think’. With these new insights, he upped his game and after another 2,000 rejections, eventually got published. His advice to budding cartoonists is to draw in batches of ten because, “In cartooning, as in life, nine out of ten things never work out.”

Out of interest grows purpose

There seems to be a classic path to purpose: First comes Interest. Many people have an unconscious interest in an area (what the author calls an ‘enduring devotion’). Because they enjoy the area they spend more time doing it than other things, leading to stage 2: Practice. Practice means they slowly get better and better at it. After a while they move into the third phase: Purpose. Their interest has moved beyond the average and they now see it to be something of great importance to them. Something that in many ways defines who they are and what they see to be important. This helps turn up the flames of both interest and practice as it becomes more purposeful. Finally there needs Hope.  Hope is the unwavering belief that they will get better and they will hit their ambition (inspite of all the setbacks along the way).

Not only was it about themselves but they all talked about how what they were doing benefitted others as well (i.e. not as selfish as we may think of a person dedicated to a sport). It appears a person first starts with a purely selfish interest but at some point has an epiphany about its connection to a bigger external benefit for society/others. Then purpose and passion gets leveraged. Purpose appears to have greater gravitational pull if linked to a higher calling outside of just themselves. If they see what they are doing helps others, it galvanises effort and resilience to the cause.

Dealing with failure

Failure is a key part of any person’s success (progress rarely runs a straight course). We tend to learn more from when we fail than when we succeed. It makes us re-evaluate our strategies and commitments. But some people give up, allowing their internal negative talk to kill their ambition.

Sadly our culture trains people from an early age to have a negative experience of failure. When a baby falls over when learning to walk it giggles. When at Kindergarten, mistakes start to get ‘pointed out’. We instil them with embarrassment, shame, sadness and fear – and that carries on for the rest of their lives. No wonder people do not want to risk failing.


‘Fall seven, rise eight’ – Japenese proverb

Hope dies last

Hope is a critical factor in perseverance. It’s about a belief that things will get better.

Hope makes us not give up, to not accept the status quo, to push on and dare to try new ways to achieve our outcome.

Seligman ran a whole series of experiments in the 1960’s to show that when we give up hope we move into a state called learned helplessness (in one famous experiment, dogs just laid on the ground and learned to accept the mild current that flowed through their kennel floor). In many ways people accept the same.  Seligman has also suggested that we can develop learned optimism.

Newer research has shown that optimists have as many bad events in their life as pessimists but choose to react differently. In a test, pessimists were asked what reasons they give when they fail to complete a task. Pessimists tend to jump to permanent things that cannot be solved (e.g. “I always screw things up”). Optimists instead blame transitory things that can be addressed (e.g. “I mismanaged my time”). They see setbacks as points of learning. Further research has shown how pessimists are more depressed, anxious and less gritty.  They also tend to be less successful in career, life, relationships and health.

Optimism drives repeated performance: Coaches invited Olympic swimmers to swim their best. Afterwards they told them they had performed less well than was actually he case. When offered the chance to swim it again, Optimists performed as well as the first time, whilst the pessimists performed significantly less well.

Fixed versus Growth mindset

Carol Dweck, a psychologist defined two different mindsets that can lead to a grittier predisposition.

Some people have a ‘fixed’ mindset. This means they believe that their talent/ability is primarily defined by their innate, genetic make up. Since we cannot affect our DNA it means they see there is a limit to their growth. Thus they do not see the point of expending too much energy. Dweck found that people with a ‘fixed’ mindset gave up on hard tests (and tended to cheat more). They are also unlikely to take on difficult challenges for fear of being ‘found out’

Other people have a ‘growth’ mindset. These people believed their ability could be enhanced through hard work. The critical issue is they saw failure as a learning opportunity (they don’t over-react to them). They tend to work harder, do better at school, enjoy better physical and mental health, and have stronger and more positive relationships. And of course they are grittier.

One of the keys to a growth mindset is knowing what to do next. We need to have the ability to diagnose the cause of the failure and then work out our strategy to address the issue.  Too many people do nothing because they do not know what to do. We need to take responsibility for our actions and seize control of our destinies.

Grit can be grown

The key question is how much is grit nature or nurture? The short answer is it’s a bit of both (this has been investigated through 2000 pairs of identical twins).

The reality is we tend to learn/model such mindsets at a very early age and they can stay with us a lifetime. It’s not about a protected and mollycoddled life away from stress but more how we react and deal with the stresses and downturns early on. If early-on we  failed in some way, but were guided with healthy strategies to cope and push on, then we are more likely to adopt those strategies later-on in life. It’s often about the perceived locus of control. If we see ourselves to be a ‘victim’ and believe we have little or no control of the situation we move into a place of helpless and hopeless. However, if we see the situation as transitory and that we do have some degree of control, then it gives us the strength to keep on pushing.

Conversely if when young we did not cope with such situations, it is likely to become a default setting for future events in our lives. Many kids raised in deprived backgrounds are getting far too many early lessons in helplessness which sadly sets many of them up for failure in life.

Likewise, the children of the wealthy who have had highly protected, ‘gifted’ lives have never experienced failure so have not yet learned how to cope with setbacks and failure. These ‘fragile perfects’ know how to succeed in life but have not yet learned how to fail.

We often see two ends of a continuum in parenting from the nurturing, loving support at one end and the more authoritarian, demanding and tough style of parenting at the other. So which is best to breed a mindset of gritty children? Is grit forged in the crucible of unrelenting high standards or nurtured in the warm embrace of loving support?

The reality is it’s a mix of loving supportive high standards (i.e. tough love). Parents need to set standards that become the accepted norm. The key then is to not tolerate a drop in those standards.  It’s also a lot to do with perceived expectation. If a parent/teacher/coach truly believes we can perform at a certain level (that is often above our own belief), then we will rise to it. It’s about developing in our children the self belief, self-worth and confidence that they can succeed. Finally, more often than not it’s less what parents say and more what they do (as we learn from modelling those significant others around us).

Expectations derive performance: Psychologists David Yeager and Geoff Cohen ran an experiment where they asked Seventh grade teachers to provide feedback on a student essay. After wards, the researchers assigned them into random piles. Onto the first pile they added a Post-it that said, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper”. On the second pile they wrote, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” Students were then given the opportunity to resubmit. 80% of those with the high expectations remark resubmitted, whilst only 40% of the first pile did. The high expectations group also made twice as many amendments to their essay.

The playing fields of grit

Partaking in some kind of extra curricular activities has also been shown to help improve grittiness as they are about mastering a skill (be it ballet, drama, football, violin etc).  There are countless studies that show that children involved in extra-curricular activities fare better on every metric (grades, self-esteem, behaviour, future employment, financial health  etc).

It would seem that the trials and tribulations of developing an extra curricular skill (supported by good teachers and peers) help train our children in the mindset of persevering and not giving up in the face of failure. The sad reality is many schools are now so cash strapped  and overburdened with admin and there is little extra-curricula activities that the teachers can support.

Trained-in effort lasts: Psychologist Robert Eisenberger trained rats to press a lever for food. In one group he made them work hard for their food (twenty presses) versus the other group where they got a pellet after just two pushes. When they were then set other activities, the hard working rats demonstrated more vigour and endurance than the ‘easy’ rats.

Evidence: The Personal Qualities Project in Princeton University developed a predictor test for future achievement. They followed several thousand students for five years starting in high school. From their studies they isolated over 100 different traits that could influence performance (inc personal background, socioeconomic status, IQ etc). One factor stood out as the principal predictor of success: Follow-through.

Using grit as a key criteria for job selection: At Microsoft, they used to give potential software programmers a task that would be tedious and take ages to complete. This was a test of their follow-through to the end line and not give up. 

A culture of grit

The culture we live in (and most identify with) powerfully shapes our beliefs, values and hence behaviour.

A culture is an invisible psychological boundary that connects us. It is the shared norms, values and behaviours of a group i.e. ‘How we do things around here’. When we adopt a culture, we take on its values and behaviours. At its highest level we identify with that culture – it defines us. Eventually we become the embodiment of that culture. Thus if we want to be like a certain group of people, then we should join that culture. If we want to become a great swimmer, we need to join a great team. Likewise, if we want to increase our grit, we must join a culture that has grittiness at its core. Then their ‘norms’ of performance and standards become ours (for example when everyone else is getting up at  four in the morning to go swimming it seems normal to us as well).

If we want to create a strong culture we need to define (and hold to) some key values. These then need to be constantly and continually communicated.

Creating a culture: An interview with the head coach of the Seahawks (the Seattle based American Football team) revealed how attention to detail was critical to embed the culture. For example, use of specific language is key along with regular use of rituals.


Whilst it is an easy book to read (having been written in a conversational style) I found the book to be quite light with limited robust data.  It was also very repetitive (frankly I did get a bit bored towards the end).

A lot of the evidence is based on correlations (and we know that correlations does not mean causation). For example, we do not know for sure that it was the grit component that led to the success (as success is multi factorial). As often is the case the researchers/author find the answer they want in the data presented.

The book seems to be more focused on hard work than the mental toughness of grit.  I had expected more in the area of mental toughness along with a range of techniques to build grit. Indeed she only offers one strategy (in our grasp) to develop our grit and that is to have a purpose.  I still sense we need more than this to build mental fortitude.


Posted in Behaviour change, Leadership, Management, Personal Development, Team building, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A beautiful constraint – summary


A beautiful constraint.

How to transform your limitations into advantages.

By Adam Morgan & Mark Barden.

 Summarised by – Strategic facilitator, planner and trainer.

The book in a nutshell

Every cloud has a silver lining. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Constraints are assumed to be a bad thing, but in reality they can often be the grist that creates the pearl. Rather than being a restrictor, they lead to bolder, more innovative solutions.

Every person and every organisation faces constraints. With a more positive attitude and use of techniques you can leverage these constraints for competitive advantage.

The authors recommend a six step process:

Step 1: Victim, Neutraliser & Transformer

Step 2: Break path dependence

Step 3: Ask propelling questions

Step 4: Can-if

Step 5: Creating abundance

Step 6: Activating emotions

The book


A constraint is a limitation imposed by outside circumstances or by ourselves that materially affects our ability to do something. The authors prefer the definition. ‘A limitation or defining parameter, often the stimulus to find a better way of doing something.’

We should view constraints not as a restrictor but rather a stimulus for increased creativity and positive change. Many managerial systems focus on either managing out or removing constraint from a system. This book however advocates embracing the constraint.

There are three types of constraint:

-Foundation – A limit in one of the key success factors of a category – e.g. Zappo’s online shoe retailer where customers can’t try on the shoes in store. To overcome this constraint they offered free return shipping.

– Resource – Raw materials, time, money and people/talent etc – e.g. Southwest airline who had only three planes but four routes to serve. To overcome this they revolutionised the industry by developing a turnaround time of just 10 minutes when it was one hour.

– Method – Where have to do something in a certain way e.g. Aravind eye hospital in India used the principles from fast food to overcome the log jam in eye surgery.

The two solid fuel engines that power the space shuttle are 4 feet 8.5 inches wide as that is the width of the railway tracks needed to carry them from Utah to Florida. 4 feet 8.5 inches is the size of the roads first built by the Romans. Thus one of the most advanced pieces of technology is constrained by a convention set up 2000 years ago.

Mick Jagger’s unique dance came about from years of performing on tiny stages in small clubs.

Google’s home page is simple because Larry Page was not adept at coding.

Simcha Blass from Netafim (Israel) noticed that one tree had grown taller than others planted at the same time. A burst pipe meant water constantly dripped near the tree. Tests helped him discover that drip irrigation not only leads to increased growth of crops by 20% but also used 50% less water.

Super-Mario characterisation came about due to the poor pixelation on eight-bit technology.

Twitter’s constrained 140 character limit has driven its popularity.

The book suggests a stepwise approach to turn constraint into abundance by a three part, six step process:

Part 1 – Mindset

Step 1: Victim, Neutraliser & Transformer

Step 2: Break path dependence

Part 2 – Method

Step 3: Ask propelling questions

Step 4: Can-if

Step 5: Creating abundance

Part 3 – Motivation

Step 6: Activating emotions

Step 1: Victim, Neutraliser & Transformer

How you perceive a constraint will affect your ability to deal with it.

There are three kinds of mindsets that influence how you approach a constraint:

-Victim – Sees the constraint as a limiting problem so will lower their ambition.

– Neutraliser – Sees the constraint as a roadblock on the way to their ambition. They will find a way around it without compromising their goal.

– Transformer – Sees the constraint as an opportunity to improve their goal.

Different constraints at different times trigger different reactions. Often people go through all three.

In 1980’s Dan Wieden was briefed by Phil Knight at Nike that he do not want any advertising that looked, felt or smelt like advertising. Wieden stuck a photo of Finnish Olympic runner Lasse Viren above his desk and thought what would he say to him that would not make him laugh? Since then the culture inside the agency is to ‘walk in stupid each day’ (so not driven by past convention).

Marissa Mayer (ex Google) knew the importance of self imposed constraints: “We need constraints in order to fuel passion and insight”. Her team was restricted in size (625Gb) and teams of just three people with just one day to create a prototype.

To help get into the right mainframe, the authors pose a few questions to challenge yourself with. What if you increase the level of the constraint (e.g. from 12 months to 6 months; from 20% increase to 100% increase….). Then answer the following questions:

1) Do you believe it is possible? (Mindset)

2) Do you know how to do it? (Method)

3) How much do you really want it? (Motivation)

As regards mindset, it’s useful to think of past times where you (or others) have beaten the odds. Be aware of your surrounding culture (be it your organisation or personal circles) as these groups can unconsciously influence you positively or negatively. Are you surrounded by ‘Can-do’ people or ‘Can-not’ people?

When Yves Behar first presented the idea of providing a laptop per child for $100, he was constantly confronted by nay-sayers.

Sir David Ogilvy once said, “Thank goodness of the freedom of a tight brief”. It’s the very constraint that creates creativity not hampers it. 

Psychologists found that when a fence was erected in a playground, the children used more of the space than before.

Jerry Seinfeld imposed self constraint (of no sex or swearing) to raise his own comic creativity.

Step 2: Break path dependence

We get locked into doing things certain ways without even thinking why. This blocks creativity. Constraint forces us to challenge these.

Sydow, Schreyogg and Koch suggested organisations go through three stages of path dependence:

Stage 1: Broad range of approaches used – Left up to managerial discretion

Stage 2: Adoption of ‘best practice’ – One recommended approach. Some degree of flexibility

Stage 3: Locked in – No room for flexibility. Often by this stage it becomes unconscious and never challenged.

Thus we tend to approach problems in the same way. We look at the same data, we ask similar questions, judge things on the same old criteria, involve similar partners, look at past solutions, and end up making the same decisions. No wonder we rarely unlock those intransigent problems! Even with completely new situations we tend to use old patterns (Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” – Ed).

Historic reporting structures and language can lock us in (e.g. US government still report employment in terms of ‘non-farm payroll’. Also a department called ‘optics’ will assume all answers must lie in optics). Daniel Kahnemen talks about how the naming of something makes the invisible become visible.

There are three types of ‘lock in’:

– Cognitive – Personal limiting mainframes

– Cultural – Collective limiting mind-frames and

– Procedural

People outside an industry are free of the locked-in mindset. This allows them to see new revolutionary solutions that the current incumbents are blind to.

Moore’s law is as much a mindset as it is about the physics. Because people believe the story, they make it happen.

Reverse innovation – rather than taking a product developed in an advanced market, creative innovation can come from working in more naive, developing markets who are able to think differently and so open up new possibilities cf the cheap car was developed in India.

Dr Louise Waters is the CEO of Leadership Public Schools in San Francisco. She noticed that kids from deprived backgrounds were 4-5 years behind in education standards by the time they reached high school. Rather than be constrained by this, she set an ambitious target that all her pupils would reach the standards by high school age (yet with no extra funding). This led to different approaches such as tailored learning for each child, and getting instant feedback on learning via  a revolutionary piece of technology.

When Nike developed their Flyknit shoes they needed to forget everything they knew about how to make uppers.

Breaking path dependence first requires an awareness of dependence and challenging the accepted wisdom (e.g. the benchmarks and KPI’s used, the current relationships used etc etc). It’s often achieved over many small steps as opposed to one big jump. The authors suggest identifying the most important six words used in an organisation and to then interrogate them. Furthermore they recommend mapping out all the process steps and challenging each one. It’s also worthwhile looking at things through a different lens (e.g. using external people – including your consumers).

Unilever challenged its own assumptions, by asking what would happen to taste if they increased the amount of green tomatoes allowed in their recipes from 5 to 10% – a criteria set many years before and had never been challenged.

Surf dug deeper into their ‘Savvy shopper’ segment by mapping their entire day through the lens of the snakes and ladders game. They identified that cleaning is lonely and joyless. This allowed them to build new emotions into the brand.

Visa changed who they wanted to be benchmarked against from their standard competitors such as Mastercard to the world’s most powerful brands such as Apple and Nike.

The US Navy had to break many paths of dependence to develop aircraft carriers.

One of the other sources to break conventions is to start asking different questions (ask the same questions, get the same answers). For example, asking how to market a brand when in heavy constraint (such as dark markets where no advertising is allowed as small brands are effectively in the dark shadows of high spending brands).

Virgin use the flight safety video as another ‘advertising space’ to demonstrate the brands distinctive personality.

Step 3: Ask propelling questions

Part of the way to break through is to start asking more powerful questions.

Just focusing on being ‘a bit better’ than your competition is a recipe for extinction. You need to think bigger – and focus on better meeting the real needs of your consumers. “Don’t just be ‘better’, be really amazing”, says Larry Page of Google. He sees his role to ask bigger questions. He calls these ‘10x’ questions. He asks questions that on the surface seem ridiculous or impossible, such as “How can we reduce car accidents?” Asking impossibly difficult questions demands novel solutions rather than staying inside the normal parameters of problem solution.

These ‘How to’ or ‘How can’ questions are called Propelling Questions as they force you to think differently. A propelling question has both a bold ambition and a significant constraint.

The construct of a propelling questions is asking a How to….(Bold ambition) with …(constraint) e.g. How to grow better barley with less water?

IKEA asked a propelling question: “How to make a durable, well-designed table for $5?” To answer this, they had to ignore the conventions of table making and  explore lateral solutions. They found the answer by sawing doors in half.

Audi asked a propelling question: “How to win LeMans if our car could go no faster than the others?” The answer was to make it more fuel efficient (as less pit stops). Hence the development of the first Diesel racing car that won LeMans three years in a row. asked a propelling question: “How to exhibit at the world’s most prestigious furniture exhibitions in Milan without paying for an exhibition hall?” They were able to borrow the apartments of four of their supporters and used them as exhibition spaces. They received over 1,000 guests.

SAB asked, “How to increase barley yield and quality while reducing water consumption by 10%?” They spoke to Barley farmers and found that barley growth has three distinct stages. Reduced water in the middle stage promotes growth. The new approach reduced water consumption by 48%, yet increased yield (with a reduced cost per hectare of $40).

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, while the unreasonable man persists in adapting the world to himself….therefore all progress belongs to the unreasonable man”. Consumers are becoming more demanding – compromise is no longer tolerated (which becomes an empowering constraint). Those who unlock an area of compromise in a category open themselves up to great fortunes.

The authors identify a range of different areas of constraint (but there may be others unique to your organisation):

– Constraint of Foundation – A fundamental foundation for success – e.g. How to see shoes without a retail outlet on the high streets?

– Constraint of Resource – Budget, time, people, skills, knowledge – e.g. How to launch a new rum brand without a budget?

– Constraint of Method – Where constrained by a certain mode of delivery – e.g. How to win at LeMans without a faster car?

There are of course many external constraints on an organizations as well (e.g. Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental, Legal, etc)

There are four sources of ‘unreasonableness’:

– The unreasonable regulator – e.g. US Government set corporate average fuel economy  goals of 54.5miles per gallon by 2025.

– The unreasonable consumer – Why can’t I have high fashion items at high street prices? I want cleaners that clean as well as other products but are ecologically friendly. I want the best mobile phones and the best networks without being tied into a contract etc.

– The unreasonable customer – e.g. Walmart demand higher standards of pricing points from its suppliers.

– The unreasonable challenger – Challengers from outside the category. e.g. Air BnB. Or challengers from a young upstart in a category – e.g. Tesla vs Mercedes.


Step 4: Can-if

Optimism erodes away over time. That’s why we need propelling questions and leaders that keeping inspiring action towards the goal. Academics have shown that positivity correlates with both resilience and openness. You need to keep focus on what has to happen to make it work rather than be de-railed by why it can’t work.  The authors coin a phrase, ‘Can…If’  (versus, ‘We can’t because…’).

Fail your way forward – Keep investing in solving the problem.  If at first you don’t succeed, find a new way (rather than getting trapped in just trying to do the same strategy again). So don’t fall in love with your strategy else it will blind you to its failings.

IDEO’s Tim Brown has observed that constraints (like most issues) are rarely one-dimensional. Thus to really unpick a problem requires multiple layers of ‘Can…If.

Taiwan needed to build a robust economic platform to withstand the pressures from mainland China, but they had a key constraint, natural resources. So the propelling question became, ‘How do we boost our economy without natural resources? The first level answer from their ‘Can…If’ questions was, “We can boost our economy without natural resources IF we increased the level of education”. But this led to the next constraint of a lack of teachers.   Their next ‘Can..If’ helped them to utilise graduates as teachers. This then fed the next identified constraint of lack of schools. This resulted in identifying new sources of funds (effectively taking funds from other government departments who would all benefit from raised educational standards).  Since improving the education, Taiwan’s economy has grown by c9% every year for 30 years (higher than Japan). They are a country of just 23m yet have the fourth largest cash reserves in the world.

Useful sources of ‘Can…If’ are:

-We can if we think of it as… – Metaphorical approaches that breaks the constrained pattern of thinking – e.g. Health services who see patients as customers.

In the time it takes to load a game, players can now practice their skills – so no longer see the upload time as a negative experience of the game.

-We can..if we use other people to… – Think laterally about who to ask help from.

DuoLingo has 1.2m people translating for free as they see it as an opportunity to improve their language skills.

-We can..if we remove x… – Often simplifying a process helps unlock value and time.

A chain of hair colouring salons in New Zealand stopped drying customers hair, allowing the stylists to move quicker onto new customers, saving time and money. 

CitizenM looked at what people most wanted in a great hotel experience (bed, shower, technology and design) and took away the things that mattered less (no double sinks, no robes, no slippers, no tea, no minibar, no paper receipts etc).Thus they were able to offer top hotel experience at 75% of the price.

-We can…if we access knowledge of… – Finding new sources of knowledge.

PHD, the global media agency, tapped into the knowledge resource of its 3,000 global employee base. A brief would be open to all employees (it included a gaming element where there was a publicised leader board of those who had contributed the most).

-We can…if we introduce a… – New product or service.

Surf increased its fragrance levels leading to a more emotionally rewarding experience. Surf grew by 36% globally from 2009 to 2012.

-We can…if we substitute x for y… – e.g. substituting an airbag ‘scarf’ for a cycle helmet (as many people found helmets flattened their hair).

-We can…if we fund it by… – Finding new sources of funding e.g. crowd sourcing, customer sourcing (cf BrewDog) etc.

-We can…if we mix together… – Putting new things together.

Recipes generated by a computer led to ‘Thai Swiss Asparagus Quiche’.

-We can…if we resource it by… – Finding new resources that currently do not have. E.g. Rent a runway wanted to rent out top designer fashions, but they did not have the finance to buy the items. So they convinced top designers to supply them the dresses for free. Uber, AirBnB and BlaBlaCar riding service in France are all examples of tapping into new sources.

In Kenya, chicken farmers were losing a lot of chicks to arial predators such as eagles and hawks. The other issue was disease.  But farmers did not want to invest in inoculating all their chicks since most of them got eaten.  By painting the chicks blue the eagles did not recognise them, thus increasing the yield, making it more cost effective for farmers to inoculate.  These two measures increased survival rates from 20% to c85%. However, this created a knock-on problem: food. The Can…if solution was to exploit the underground legions of termites. But the next issue was how to ‘excavate’ them? Another part of Kenya had already solved this issue using bundles of waste crop soaked in water.


Step 5: Creating abundance

The award winning TV show, ‘Whose line is it anyway’ works off the core idea of constrained resources. The comedians see this as a leverage point for creativity rather than a restriction.   It’s easy solving problems with more resources – but more fun and rewarding to do it with less. To start you need a positive mindset.  Secondly we need to be open to new sources. People born into poverty tend to be more resourceful than those born into a world of abundance. Thirdly, we rarely mine all the resource opportunities we have around us as. For example we only think of resources as those being within our immediate control; we tend to wait for resources to be given to us rather than going out hunting for new ones; the resources we do have we do not extract all the resources possible from them. Finally we do not think what resources we have that we could barter with.

There are four common resources to explore:

– Invested stakeholders  – e.g. were able to exhibit at Milan by displaying their furniture in four of their customers spaces

– External partners – e.g SAB working closely with farmers

– Resource owners – e.g. The NGO Colalife used CocaCola’s distribution might to deliver packs of their dehydration salts to children suffering from diarrhoea across Africa

– Competition – e.g. Ford & Toyota collaborating on technologies for hybrid trucks.

When Virgin America launched in 2007 their goal was to ‘put glamour back into air travel’. They wanted their airlines to feel like nightclubs in the sky.   But they lacked money for the launch. They saw the planes as an asset they could leverage. So they flew Victoria Secret’s models to their annual fashion show (gaining lots of PR for their in flight pyjama party). 

This who share our agenda/values/mission/purpose are more likely to contribute resources. Also those who recognise they lack something we have will also be up for bartering.  The aim should be to work on selling people our mission/purpose/values etc and also helping them to see that what we have is what they re missing.

The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts benefits from the Dove Self Esteem program as they have a shared vision of preparing girls to become fully functioning successful adults. 

Nike gave away the intellectual property rights for its ‘Making’ app (which catalogs 75,000 different materials by environmental impact and sustainability) because Nike values a sustainable future for all.


Step 6: Activating emotions

Admiral William McRaven, Commander of the US Special Operations Command wrote a book called Spec Ops. In it he discussed six principles that make special operations successful – Simplicity, Security, Repetition, Surprise, Speed and Purpose. Purpose helps drive meaning and internal motivation that overcomes the barriers along the way.  It turns something from a want to a MUST.

Gallup has shown how giving people meaning at work drives performance (after all if you don’t care about the problem then less likely to solve it). Angela Duckworth identified ‘grit’ as a key component of successful people – that tenacity to keep on pushing forward towards a goal despite obstacles, hurdles and failure. She found out it was a bigger predictor of success than IQ.

‘Desirable Difficulties’ describes the notion that there can be some advantages of a disadvantage. For example, a person from  a ‘constrained’ background may be more resilient,  more resourceful and may have more drive to succeed than those born into affluence.

No way out – When you offer people an ‘early exit’ strategy it allows people to opt out, and not keep pushing. If there is no way out of something, then people are forced to keep on pushing.

Utilising different emotions – Negative emotions can be a powerful driver leading to persistence, commitment and focus. Dan Wieden (W&K advertising) likes a milder form of fear – anxiety. “If you can remain insecure, yet optimistic, you’ve got a pretty good chance of changing the world”. Many brands are born from dissatisfaction with the category.  BrewDog came about because its founder hated the ‘mainstream, industrial, monolithic, insipid, bland, tasteless, apathetic beers that dominate the market’, making them into the ‘punks’ of beer.

The UK pub chain, JD Wetherspoon was named after a teacher who told Tim Martin he would never amount to anything. 

Juxtaposing an ‘away from’ negative emotion with a ‘towards’ positive emotion offers an even greater chance of success.  Research has shown that the most successful problem solvers toggle between looking at a broad range of stimuli (which relies on positive emotional energy) and then switching o a focused persistence (ideally driven by fear and anger as these help you really focus your energies). Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and Square talked about this value of tension in setting up his businesses.

Prof. Gabriele Oettingen, the head of Motivation at New York University has distinguished three approaches to reach a desired outcome:

– Indulging – Create a vivid picture of what it would look like if (so inspired by its positive emotions).

– Dwelling – Sitting in a place of negativity where think of all the things that could go wrong or what would happen if did not achieve this goal. This creates the anxiety and fear that motivates.

– Toggling – The most effective space. It’s a bit like an electric motor – the shifting between -ve and +ve creates the drive.

Critically though, it does need a plan that gets actioned!

Stanford’s Design for Extreme Affordability is one of the most difficult courses to get into (only 6% applications accepted). They look for EQ (emotional intelligence) as much as IQ as they realise the inter-relationships between the students is critical to problem solving. They deal with high stress situations (e.g. premature babies) so they need to remain calm under pressure.

The fertile zero

The resource curse – Countries rich in natural resources tend to do worse economically than those without resources (Norway accepted) as excess resources leads to complacency. This theme runs true with organisations and individuals.

Tobacco companies bankrolled Formula one for decades. In 2005 the gravy train ended with the banning of tobacco sponsorship. Ron Dennis, the leader of McLaren instructed that every single process be interrogated to identify areas of savings and improvement. This led to many step change processes, one of which included reducing pit stops from 4sec to 2.5sec.

Sometimes going for ‘zero’ can unlock new creative solutions. Some routes to explore are:

– Drama & surprise – BrewDog had no money and hence no advertising (in a category where advertising drives sales). This forced them to be creative and make the brand come alive in social media. Drama helps the brand stand out, create attention and engages emotions. It also promotes conversation and creates memorability. It’s recommended to be ‘unexpected’ to create surprise.

Warby Parker, the eye wear specialists created an unexpected annual report where they talked about the inner workings (including unexpected facts and mistakes).

Prof Sir Andre Geim found it difficult to convince his science peers about electromagnetism – so he levitated a frog to bring alive the power of electormagnatism.

– Being interesting on the inside – If you do not have the budget to talk about yourself, you need to get others to talk about you. To do this you need a great story. If it’s not interesting, it’s not shared.  Thus the focus is on creating interest.

Sailor Jerry Rum was created by an advertising creative called Steve Grasse from his agency Quaker Mercantile. Ironically he built it with no advertising spend. The brand was built through support of grass roots movement amongst punk bands  and a clothing range (Grasse talks about how it is key to be true to the tribe you want to engage). He claims that because he did not know how rum brands were meant to ‘behave’ he did it his own way, defying the conventions of the category.

Grasse’s next project was recreating old pre-industrial folk recipes such as Rhubarb tea (The story behind this is Benjamin Franklin brought rhubarb seeds to America and gave it to the King’s Botanist, John Bertram who developed a tea from it).

Cordarounds sell corduroy trousers with their ridges running horizontally rather than vertically. They are distinctive and it creates a talking point.

Aesop beauty brand has grown to 43 stores worldwide.  They want to put intelligence into beauty.  Thus their shop staff were asked to refrain from mindless small talk/chatter.

– Making a secondary medium your primary idea platform – This is about owning a distinctive media space.

Alcohol advertising was banned in the 80’s in France. Heineken developed different bottle shapes and sizes to match different drinking occasions, helping it grow by 600%.

– Alliance to scale – Building new types of partnership. History has shown great advances are made when there is a strong coalition of people working towards a common goal

CitizenM did not have money for mass refurbishment. Vita, the Swiss furniture company also did not have the money co-develop retail outlets. A coalition meant Citizen M got their lobbies decorated for free, and Vitra got a showroom in every city.

– Other people’s resources – Using customers and consumers as your R&D resource.

– Commercial innovation –

Vitamin water developed an alliance with the rapper 50 Cent.

English Rugby needed to raise £2.5m in 2011. They placed a £250,000 bet with the bookies that they would win.

Constraint driven cultures

The culture of an organisation influences the accepted behaviour. Often the history (the ways the company does things) and the values of the founder/senior leaders can deeply affect current behaviour. Embracing constraints is part and parcel of some organisation’s culture.  The key success factors appear to be:

-Big ambition and strong intent

-Start from the top and empower key people

-Make it central to the business

-Be consistent

-Be willing to challenge and interrogate every partnership and process

-Be a storytelling culture

Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA came from Smaland, a place that used the rocks from the fields to build the walls and the road. Kamprad was always looking at ways of reducing/using waste (hence why he used the feathers from plucked chickens to make affordable duvets). Such attitudes run all the way through IKEA.

Nike had a problem with workers not wearing face masks to protect from the toxic fumes from the glue. Rather than monitor them 24 hours a day, they instead developed a less harmful glue.

Unilever’s goal is to double its size whilst halving its environmental impact by 2020. They do not have all the answers, but feel committed to work through the solutions.

Change success takes a number of different factors – if any one of them is not done then it will not lead to the high levels of success:


Constraints make us search for solutions in new areas. They make us ask different questions and rethink things. Constraints help us expand, not constrict. In the global competitive world, we need to create  better solutions, and constraint thinking is a powerful tool to inspire new ways of thinking and doing.



This is a beautifully designed book (just study their models – well thought through but then beautifully executed through design). It’s full of anecdotes and good practical information (although as is often the case, I felt it was running out of steam towards the end).

One of the issues is that the culture must be tolerant of constraint thinking. Raising some issues/questions inside an organisation can be difficult. Mavericks in my experience are rarely tolerated, preferring people who do not challenge the status quo.

Also we need to beware of ‘constraint fatigue’.  If managers over play the ‘Let’s build in an artificial constraint’ then managers (who already have enough constraints anyway) will just tire of such punitive demands.

Defining the brand story

Posted in Advertising, Brands, Change, Creativity, Decision making, Leadership, Management, Marketing, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How Brands Grow – What marketers don’t know by Byron Sharp (Summarised by Paul Arnold – Facilitator, Trainer and Strategic Planner)

how brands grow


The book challenges conventional ‘wisdom’, replacing it with empirical facts. Its key conclusions are:

  1. Growth primarily comes from gaining new users (penetration) rather than driving increased loyalty. Most of a brand’s users will be light users.
  2. Brands need to build physical availability (distribution) and mental availability (saliency).
  3. Even though brands differentiate themselves, in reality consumers still react (and buy) within a repertoire (as if there were no differences). Indeed, distinctivity is more important than differentiation – as it helps drive saliency.
  4. Advertising works by refreshing (and occasionally building) past memory structures.

The book rejects the concepts of brand loyalty, differentiation, segmentation, Lovemarks, and targeted (i.e low reach) media.


The key principles and laws that help reshape marketing

Double Jeopardy Law – Brands with higher market share have more buyers than brands with lower market share. They also have buyers who are slightly more loyal.

Retention Double Jeopardy Law – All brands lose customers in rough proportion to their brand size (i.e. brands with higher market share lose more buyers than brands with lower market share). That said even though the percentage of its total brand universe is smaller, the sheer size of the brand mean the actual number of lost customers for a larger brand is bigger.

Pareto Law (60/20) – c60% of a brand’s sales come from just 20% of their buyer base.

Buyer Moderation Law – Buying tends to regress back toward the mean – i.e. high volume purchasers in one cycle tend to buy less in the next cycle, and low volume purchasers tend to buy more in the next cycle. Likewise some non-buyers become buyers (and some buyers become non-buyers).

Natural Monopoly Law – Brands with higher market share have a greater proportion of light users than brands with lower market share.

Brand user bases seldom vary – Competitor brands sell to the same customer profiles inspite the efforts to segment and differentiate (i.e. there is less brand differentiation and segmentation of user bases than we think).

Attitudes and brand beliefs reflect behavioural loyalty – Consumers like and know more about the brands they buy more regularly (and know very little about brands they do not buy). Because larger brands have more regular users, they always score higher in brand attitude surveys than other brands.

Usage drives attitude (or ‘I love my mum and you love yours’) – The attitudes and perceptions for a brand amongst its users are very similar, irrespective what brand it is – because we all like the brands we choose to use.

Law of Prototypicality – Image attributes of a brand that are more closely tied to the category always score higher than attributes less associated with the category.

Duplication of Purchase Law – A brand shares most of its customers with the largest brand and the least number of its customers with the smaller brands – e.g. If 30% of a brand’s buyers also bought brand A in a period, then 30% of every rival brand’s customers also bought brand A.

NBD-Dirichlet Model – A mathematical model that explains many of the above principles of how often buyers purchase from a category and which brands they buy.

Evidence based marketing

In reviewing nine leading marketing text books, they found it full of unproven ‘advice’. All the texts reinforce and support each other in suggesting a set ‘way’ of doing marketing. Many things we have been led to believe are important have now been shown to be less important. Examples including changing packaging, running advertising that jettisons its past, over-investing in loyalty programmes, promoting with deep discounts to recruit new users and spending on low reach media.

Through empirical analysis, we can now separate facts from myth:

From (old myths)

To (the facts)





Message comprehension

Getting noticed; Emotional response

Unique selling proposition

Relevant associations


Refreshing & building memory structures



Rational involved viewers

Emotionally distracted viewers

Attitudes drive behaviour

Behaviour drives attitude

Brand switchers

Loyal switchers


Heuristics (i.e. short cuts to meaning)

Growth through driving loyalty

Growth through driving penetration (of light users)

Price promotions win customers

Price promotion rewards existing users

Target marketing/segmentation

Sophisticated mass marketing

We compete on positioning

We compete with all brands in the category

Message comprehension

Getting noticed, emotional response

Unique selling proposition

Relevant associations



Campaign bursts

Continual presence


How brands grow

There are now over one million brands that obey some basic principles:

  1. The larger the brand share, the greater the number of customers – Whilst in theory you could have two brands of the same size – one with a few buyers who buy frequently and an other with a lot of buyers who buy infrequently, the reality reveals that all brands obey the same rules – they all have lots of buyers who buy the brand infrequently.
  2. Loyalty varies in line with brand share – Loyalty does not vary as much as brand shares but it does reflect brand share in that big brands have slightly higher loyalty levels than small size brands).

Washing powder brands (UK)

Market share (2005)

Annual penetration (2005)

Average purchase frequency (2005)





















Even when you have highly differentiated brands in a category (such as Head and Shoulders and Vosene) still follow the Double Jeopardy Law. H&S had a brand share of 11% (Vs 2% for Vosene) in 2005, an annual penetration of 13% (vs 3% for Vosene) and average purchase frequency of 2.3x (vs 1.7x for Vosene). In other words, the larger the brand, the more buyers (and the average frequency of purchase is also higher).

Net, the way to boost the loyalty level is not through a loyalty campaign but by increasing the user base.

3. Brands primarily grow by increasing its number of users – Ehrenberg studied the success of 157 brands and found the factor most closely linked to their growth of decline was increase (or decrease) in its user base. The IPA advertising effectiveness awards found in 82% of the 880 papers entered reported growth from penetration (and just 2% from loyalty).

Penetration strategy

Loyalty strategy

Gold winners

21 papers

2 papers

Silver winners

20 papers

6 papers

Bronze winners

18 papers

3 papers

No medal awarded

41 papers

89 papers

Source: Binet & Field 2007

Niche brands – The core principle of niche brands is they have fewer, but more loyal customers. The reality is there are very few true niche brands. Most still have a wide number of buyers who buy them infrequently.

Cross-selling – Multiple products under a brand is also a common strategy for growth. But cross selling is just another form of loyalty and thus follows the Law of Double Jeopardy – i.e. the greater the size of the brand, the higher the level of cross selling.

How to grow your customer base

The marketing facts of life are that brands will always lose buyers each year. Indeed they follow the Law of Jeopardy – i.e. the larger the brand size, the more customers they lose (even growing brands). The larger the brand the higher its loyalty. The smaller the brands the slightly larger its defection rate.

Defection rates Car brands in UK & France (1986-1989)

Penetration %

Defection %

























Source: Colombo, Ehrenberg & Sabavala, 2000

A study by Riebe (2003) showed that in the pharmaceutical category, brands that were in decline shared the same level of defection as successful brands. The issue for their decline was primarily to do with their inability to gain new users. She also replicated the study in France for shampoos and chocolate bars which supported her findings – that loyalty declines with market share.

Financial Institutions in Australia

Market share %

Defection %







Bank SA



Adelaide Bank



Ave Defection rate


Source: Roy Morgan Research

Net: It is essential for a brand to develop an acquisition strategy if it wants to grow.

Which customers matter the most?

All marketing books propose targeted marketing as opposed to mass, blanket marketing. Today the trend is for targeting ‘influencers’ through ‘new’ media. Yet forming deep relationships with a substantial number of users in unlikely. All brands have many lighter users, and these lighter users contribute significantly to sales volume. Even for a brand like Coca Cola, light users dominate. And this is also the same for smaller brands. Marketers often forget how infrequent their average buyer buys (For example 30% of Coca Cola buyers do not even buy once a year. For Pepsi, it’s 50%). At the other end, just 4% of Coca Cola’s total buyers deliver almost 25% of total sales. These people are easy to market to (because they are often in your aisle, and are more likely to notice your advertising). You can argue that it’s not the best use of marketing funds to aim at these people as they are already committed buyers. It’s the infrequent buyers who are the majority of your user base. Pareto’s Law for Marketing is not 20/80 but more like 20/60 (ie 20% of buyers accounts for 60% of sales).

Furthermore, we misunderstand what light users are. Approximately 14% sales in a year come from people who had not bought the brand the year before (these are light users yet would be classified as ‘non users’). Likewise, the heavier buyers tend to buy less than they did the previous year – i.e. lighter buyers get heavier and heavier buyers get lighter (= a regression to the norm for all buyers):

% brand sales year 1

% brand sales year 2

Non buyers
(i.e. 0 purchase year 1)



Light buyers
(i.e. 1 purchase in year 1)



Medium buyers
(i.e. 2-4 purchases in year 1)



Heavy buyers
(i.e. 5+ purchases in year 1)



Source: Anscheutz 2002

Brand numbers may appear fairly static over time but in reality there is a lot of individual fluctuations within those numbers. People do ‘jump’ category – it’s not the same people who remain in one category all the time. Thus a brand does need to reach a wide range of users as they all change. Marketing aimed at the vast number of light users and/or non-buyers has been shown to be more effective – thus broad reach, mass marketing is the way to build a brand.

Our buyers are different

All brands assume their brand is clearly differentiated from the other brands in the category, appealing to a discrete and distinctive target group. Sadly this is not the case. The profile of the typical buyer is the same for all the key brands.

A historic piece of research compared the personality profile of buyers of Ford and Chevrolet and found they were essentially identical. More recent studies (mainly by Ehrenberg & Kennedy) have profiled hundreds of brands from dozens of categories (from cigarettes to mortgages) over time. The studies examined hundreds of variables (demographics, psychographics, values etc).

The key discovery was that competing brands sell to the same sort of people.

Perception, attitudes and intentions do not differ much across the different brand’s customer base – for example the ‘I love my mum – and you love your mum’ syndrome: Consequently buyers of Brand A think as well of their brand as buyers of Brand B think of their brand. People who regularly hire a Hertz find them to be clean and have attractive rents – as do people who hire Avis etc.

An associated (but different) piece of research (by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute) shows how everyone has the same reasons for choosing their last holiday destination – irrespective of which place they went to.

New variants – Marketers often launch new variants in the hope that it will reach different people. But the reality is they rarely differ. The reality is the customer bases of brands in a category are very similar (the key difference is just the sheer numbers) – Versace sells to the same people who buy Gucci!

Who do you really compete with?

Marketing has moved from mass marketing to target marketing through segmentation. The facts suggest that people buy across a category and are rarely solus brand users.

Buyers of Brand….

%age of buyers who also bought regular Coke

Diet Coke








Source: TNS

Buyers of brand…

Carte D’Or


Ben & Jerry’s

Haagen Dazs



Carte D’Or












Ben & Jerry’s






Haagen Dazs

























Source: TNS

Likewise, research by Ehrenberg has shown that customer gains for BMW in France come more from large non-premium brands like Peugeot and Citroen than from other premium brands like Mercedes and Audi.

Thus, it is unlikely than any brand owns a discrete segment of buyers. Most brands share (and hence fish) from the same pool of buyers (and in line with the size of the brand). The Law of Duplication of Purchase predicts that a brand will lose more customers to the largest brand within a category (and conversely, will also gain the most number of users from them). This again suggests a move back to mass market media (especially TV) to reach as many of the category purchasers as possible. The individual messages helps draw attention to a brands (minute) differences that may ‘nudge’ people on a temporary basis to choose that brand (but we know they will also buy other brands later on).

Research suggests that one of the biggest drivers of segmented buying of brands is distribution. If people can buy all the brands in the same place, then sales will spread across all those available. Collage for examples sells all its toothpastes in one place. If a brand has a unique route to market, then its more likely to have a differentiated user base.

Passionate consumer commitment

We know that familiarity breeds liking – i.e. prior experience of a brand makes a person more favourable to it (so a Coca Cola user will like the taste of Coke versus Pepsi and vice versa). We also know that brand cues can influence their perception (e.g. McDonald’s French fries taste better when you know they are from McDonald’s than when left unbranded).

Whilst brand loyalty is not perfect, a brand that has a greater emotional closeness is more likely to get greater than fair share purchase from an individual (they will still buy other brands as well). Brand loyalty helps us save time and effort in reviewing all options.

There are very few people who are solus buyers (and no brand is made up of solus buyers) – the average number of solus buyers for a brands is about 13% (i.e. 87% are multi brand buyers). We also know from the Double Jeopardy Law that larger brands will have more sold buyers and smaller brands will have less.


Annual Category purchase rate


Brand share

100% loyal buyers

















Breakfast cereals
















Source: TNS

Larger brands tend to have a higher proportion of light users due to the statistical nature of larger numbers (also known as the Natural Monopoly Law). For example, if you were to just buy one can of Cola a year, it is more than likely it would be Coca Cola.

Likewise, heavy category buyers are more likely to buy more brands. Thus, smaller brands are more likely to also be bought by the heavy category buyers (who will by definition be the most common buyers of the larger brands as well). Hence buyers of the smaller brands tend to be bought by people who are heavier category buyers. To illustrate, Cross & Blackwell sauce buyers on average buy tomato sauce 8 times a year (i.e. twice as much as the average purchase rate) – even though they only buy C&B 1.2 times a year.

Tomato Ketchup brands

Market share%

Penetration %

Frequency of buying this brand each year

Frequency of buying any tomato sauce each year











Cross & Blackwell





Source: TNS

Buyers tend to restrict their repertoire to a smaller range within a category. For example, a household with a choice of 80 channels, tend to switch between only 12 channels (effectively ignoring 85% of channels). Interestingly, when the choice increases to 200 channels, people still tend to stick to just 12 channels.

Lovemarks – Many marketing texts talk about creating value, delivering customer satisfaction, building relationships and creating engagement. This makes us ‘see’ their behaviour through such lenses i.e. the reason why a person buys a brand is due to this emotional connection the brand has created with the individual. Yet these theories (especially as proposed by Kevin Robert’s Lovemarks) are largely untested assumptions. We do not ‘identify’ with most brands in the same way we do with our sports team. Consumers are busy people and do not have the time to reassess decision-making every time they walk into a store. Furthermore, the risk of a bad decision over a tin of soup is so low to mean there is no seriously bad choice. In reality, most brand choices are routine, passionless* and often unconscious – thus brand loyalty is not an active choice but a passive one.

(*Research by neuroscientists reveal there is only very slight emotional responses to brands).

When we see a consistent image score (e.g. ‘Hertz rents attractive cars’) we assume then people constantly think that. But when you dig into the individual data lines, you find individuals shift their attitudes on brands – some go up and some go down – so under the seeming static-ness of the number actually lies a lot of fluidity. This does not mean that consumers are permanently shifting their attitudes towards or away from the brand, but it appears consumers are often in flux (and hence their response can depend on what’s going on at that moment for them). Thus one time they may fancy Hertz, and another time Avis. At this point, minutiae of influences can nudge a person one way or the other (and not all of these influences are brand driven).


Financial Services Brands

%Initial agreement to statement ‘Would value me as a whole person not just a transaction’ % of the first score that repeated their agreement with the statement. Respondents who agreed in both surveys
ANZ 11 53 .53 x 11 = 6%
St. George 11 35 .35 x 11 = 4%
Colonial 6 33 .33 x 6 = 2%

Source: Ehrenberg-Bass Institute

Net what we think about a brand is not absolute nor is it static. In reality, most people rarely think deeply about most of the brands they use.

Brand fanatics – there are obviously some people who are 100% loyal to a brand. Some are loyal because they are such infrequent buyers (e.g. once a year) whilst others are regular, solus buyers. This may be due to rational decisions (e.g. availability) and in some cases it’s because they are fanatical about the brand. Curiously any brand can have a few fanatical loyalists (including 7-Eleven!). Apple and Harley Davidson are the poster boys of emotion driven brand loyalty.

The facts are that buyers of these two brands also buy other brands in their category (Buyers of Harley Davidson buy other brands twice as often as they buy a Harley). Apple’s repeat buyer level in 2002/3 (i.e. loyalty) was only slightly higher than average (and significantly less than Dell). Nike is no more loyal than other brands bearing in mind its market size. This is not to say these brands do not have fanatical followers, but they are a small percentage of their total buyer base and hence revenue (and may not be any larger than many other brands). Sadly these brands do not get a good advocacy kick via social media (as evidence suggests people only talk about new things they are doing or buying, not established patterns).

Net – we like what we buy (and may well find post rationalised excuses for what we did not buy). Most buyers think and care little about the brands they buy – and even less about the brands they don’t buy.

Differentiation versus distinctiveness

Rather than aiming for meaningful differentiation, seek instead for distinctiveness (that may be free from meaning). We need to quickly establish a brand within consumers mind – and being distinctive helps make a brand salient.

There is little empirical evidence offered in text books that a differentiation strategy actually leads to brand growth (yet there is evidence that most brands in a category have similar rivals). Most people buy within a category for the generic benefits of that category – which everyone offers. Thus for many brands the areas of differentiation are marginal (and temporary) and thus have limited influence on purchase patterns.Often any differences are quite functional (e.g. American brands are perceived as American, and expensive brands perceived as expensive.

Likewise brand personality. The reality is users of different brands see them in the same way. It could be argued that brand personality is a misguided concept as few people imbue brands with human-like qualities (for example, only 3% of British consumers think their condiment is ‘charming’).

















Brand ‘A’
















Brand ‘B’








Brand ‘C’
















Brand ‘D’
















Source: Collins 2002

Marketers strive to create unique imagery for their brands. But a study of 130 brands in 13 product areas shows that people rarely (i.e. 3%) see a brand as exclusively owning a particular image or attribute. The more successful brands do not appear to have unique associations. The reality is they will all own the core attributes of that category.

Differentiation does exist. Every category will have brands that differ on the fundamentals of price and quality. But how important is differentiation? The fact that loyalty does not vary significantly between brands suggests it is not as important. Furthermore, if important, then surely we should see a matching with different consumer segment types (who may favour that point of differentiation)? But again we have found competing brands sell to very similar customer bases. Brands that are very differentiated should be selling to more discrete audiences – but this is not the case (as heavy category buyers in particular often buy a wide number of competitive brands).

The NBD-Dirichlet mathematical model assumes that brands compete as undifferentiated options – and this has been validated across many different studies on many different categories in many different countries. Net, brands are much more similar than we like to think. Differentiation as a concept is more important at a category level than a brand level (For example, KFC, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut all have minor differences from their respective main competitors (like Burger King, Dominoes etc), but are differentiated from each other in the competing fast food category). Differentiation is a concept that lives in theory but dies in practice. It’s not how the real world works.

So how do people really chose between branded options? Studies reveal that most people (i.e. average 89%) do not see their brand as being very different from its competitors. Even brands like Apple. 77% of its user base say they do not see it as different or unique from other brands. We may talk about Apple’s design, its user interface and different operating system, but for most people it still helps them look at things on the internet, send emails store photos, and write documents – like every other computer does. Thus, if they do not see these brands as being different, then it can’t play a big part in influencing their purchase.

In reality, most people do not need a point of differentiation to buy a brand (or keep on buying it). In many cases, brand choice can be a trivial decision, with little thought and gentle influence. People by and large do not spend a long time ‘comparing’ across brands. Hence many people do not really know the differences between brands (they know a little about the brands they use, and near nothing about the brands they do not use). This threatens many theoretical models on information processing (such as Alpert ’71, Fishbein & Ajzen ’75 etc.). Thus it is not essential for marketers to convince buyers that their product is different for them to buy it.


Current users who perceive their brand as being DIFFERENT %

Current users who perceive their brand as being UNIQUE %







Skincare products






Fast food






Soft drinks






Ready sauces
























Source: Romaniuk, Sharp & Ehrenberg

Distinctiveness – an alternate perspective

Distinctiveness helps make a brand ‘stand out’ in our mind and memory. Of interest, there need not be any meaningful purpose of the point of distinction (as its role is merely to drive saliency).

Some elements that drive distinctiveness include colours (e.g. Vodafone red), Logos (e.g. McDonald’s arches), Shapes (e.g. Toblerone), Tag lines (e.g. Nike – Just do it), Symbols/ Characters (e.g. Micky Mouse’s ears), Celebrities (e.g. Tiger Woods for Nike), and advertising styles (e.g. Priceless campaign by Mastercard). When you have a distinctive feature it should be regularly featured in all communication material to install into long term memory. This also helps build a sense of familiarity, which creates an emotional reassurance of the brand (and this in turn helps nudge purchase). Since most brands have a long tail of irregular buyers, distinctivity helps bring the brand to mind, encouraging re- purchase. When a brand drifts into the deep recesses of the mind, the opportunity to be considered when the consumer buys into that category is diminished.

These points of distinction need to be learned by the consumer and this takes time (and consistent exposure). For example, Nike first introduced its ‘swoosh’ in the 1970’s.

How advertising really works

Fact: advertising works. If it didn’t then why would very smart organisations around the world spend 2% of the world’s GDP on it? 40 years of single source data (i.e data trains linked to individuals) from a wide range of categories has provided solid empirical evidence that advertising drives sales amongst those exposed to it. The reality is not every ad sells. – some copy is more effective than others (and it’s not necessary for that copy to be rational to be persuasive).

The increasing knowledge we have has helped us redefine some of the key principles of advertising:

From (old myths)

To (the facts)

Rational OR Emotional

Emotional AND Rational

Message comprehension

Getting noticed; Emotional response

Unique selling proposition

Relevant associations


Refreshing & building memory structures





Primarily, advertising works by creating and refreshing memory. Most decision- making is heavily influenced by emotions. Du Plessis states that emotional content in advertising helps gain attention. ‘Emotion’ also lifts the liking of ads (which in turn leads to greater attention (and increased branding) and from there, greater influence and sales).

Brand advertising affects the buying behaviour of consumers. It’s impact is long term, more subtle yet more effective than short term promotional driven advertising. That is because of two things:
1) The advertising effect is laid down thinly over a long period of time (especially for large brands as their ad spend is relatively small versus all the other ‘impacts’ the brand has due to its size). The effect is like the decent path of a plane – the higher it climbs, the longer its influence.

2) Most advertising just maintains market share (as few advertisers invest big enough to really shift the needle).

Most brands have a long tail of light users. The committed heavy users is so ingrained in their behaviour, that the advertising will have little impact. However, the advertising reminds those light users of the brand and so ‘nudges’ their behaviour (do not under-estimate the impact of a slight nudge on millions of potential customers). If a brand does not remind these light users, then the brand fades from memory (and is further pushed back by the advertising of other brands) and so is less likely to be used again. The bigger the brand, the more light users it has and hence the more money it needs to spend to reach them all (and so needs to use broad reach media rather than discrete channels).

Advertising needs to be processed (ideally consciously but can also be unconsciously) to build memory structures. The trouble with so much vying for attention, advertising’s first role is to cut through (hence the use of creativity). Emotion is the primary source of human motivation so engaging and evoking emotions is often critical in advertising.

The key way advertising works is by building (and occasionally refreshing) memory structures. This helps people more readily recall the brand, making it more top of mind (salience). Continual presence is more effective than short bursts of advertising as it stops these memory structures from fading away.

Rational advertising that tries to convince through providing some meaningful new information to persuade can work (but are often dry and so fail to cut-through). Rational messaging is better absorbed if wrapped in emotion (e.g. ‘Goodyear tyres reduce braking ability’ Vs ‘Keeps your loved ones safe’).

Net, use broad reach media, with emotional elements and aim for continuous exposure to build a brand.

What price promotions really do

Price promotions have an immediate and dramatic effect on short term sales. It is the easiest to change. But in most cases it is artificial and short lasting. Price promotion primarily rewards current users. They have not been shown to bring new users permanently into the brand.

Each brand has a ‘normal’ (expected price) to pay and most categories have pricing tiers – ranging from economy up to premium.The belief is some people are premium brand buyers and others want to buy as cost efficiently as possible. Research however suggests people buy across the pricing range, even within a category:

Buyers of…

%age buying cheapest instant coffee

%age buying regular priced instant coffee

%age buying premium priced instant coffee

%age buying most expensive instant coffee

Cheapest instant coffee





Regular priced instant coffee





Premium priced instant coffee





Most expensive instant coffee





Source TNS

For some brands, more than half its sales come from discounted prices (which raises the question, what is the real price of the brand?)

For retailers and many brands, promotions have become ingrained into their plans without any real thought to their impact. So why do brands run price promotions? The two most common reasons cited are to drive sales/profit and attract new users. Sadly neither of these are supported by empirical evidence.

Ehrenberg, Hammond and Goodhardt (1994) found that almost everyone who bought a brand during its promotional period had bought the brand previously (and so marketers have given away profit (because they would have bought it at the full price).

Furthermore, promotions tend to pull sales forward (so you get a dip in sales post promotion).

But does it bring back infrequent buyers? Price promotions do bring in a lot of infrequent buyers, but these buyers then drop back out afterwards.

Do they bring in new users? Promotions do jolt short term purchase but it does not change their overall buying profile.

So what is the average volume a brand can expect? Studies have found a fairly consistent level of price elasticity (i.e. the %age change in volume for a 1% change in price). Danaher & Brodie (2000) found a -2.3% across 26 categories – i.e. a 23% increase in sales from a 10% drop in price. Scriven and Ehrenberg (2004) found -2.6%, and Bijmolt, Van Heerde & Pieters (2005) -2.5%. These results can be exceeded if there is a relatively big price drop versus the competition, if the promotion is heavily promoted, or if the brand has a low share.

But does price promotions increase profitability? Even with large volume rises, it often does not contribute to extra profit. That is because by cutting the price, you cut the profit margin. For example, if a brand (with a margin of 50%), drops its price by 10% this will reduce its margin to 30%. A 25% drop in price would wipe out all profit on those extra sales. Clearly these breakeven levels depend on the brands margin:

For a brand with a 30% profit contribution margin

For a brand with a 40% profit contribution margin

For a brand with a 50% profit contribution margin

Price reduction %

Increase in sales needed to match the current contribution (%)

Increase in sales needed to match the current contribution (%)

Increase in sales needed to match the current contribution (%)

















Source: Sharp 2010

One of the problems with regular promotions is the re-education of the consumer base into the ‘new reality’ of the price of the brand (making them actively reject the brand when not on promotion). Regular high visibility promotions then becomes another learned memory of the brand, encouraging some people to only buy when on offer.

Net, price promotion is costly. It does not bring in permanent new users and erodes (potentially forever) the brands margins. The only real benefit is for the retailer. The recommendation is to reduce the funding of price promotion to the minimum viable and move the funds instead into longer term brand building activities such as advertising.

Why loyalty programs do not work

The marketing ‘theory’ is if a brand can develop a closer, more empathetic relationship with its consumers and offering reward points for purchase then they will become more loyal to the brand.

However this basic premise may well be misguided as empirical evidence suggests it’s not working. Indeed, some companies are now winding down their investment in their loyalty programs.

The Ehrenberg-Bass institute studied loyalty programs in Australia and observed only a weak effect. In the study there were able to predict the likely level of loyalty a brand of each size would expect with no special activity. The results show only marginal differences versus no activity:

PREDICTED Penetration of a brand this size (with no activity)

ACTUAL Penetration (through loyalty program)

PREDICTED Average Purchase frequency of a brand this size (with no activity)

ACTUAL Average Purchase frequency (through loyalty program)

PREDICTED Sole buyers of a brand this size (with no activity)

ACTUAL Sole buyers (through loyalty program)












































































Source: Ehrenberg-Bass Institute

Loyalty programs fall into the same trap as price promotions do. Primarily it’s the regular users who see the benefit of it and sign up, whilst infrequent buyers are less likely to engage. And of course non-users rarely even know about it.


Average Purchase Frequency of consumers who joined the loyalty program

Average Purchase Frequency of consumers who DID NOT join the loyalty program




Petrol Retail



Department stores



Credit Cards









Source: Ehrenberg-Bass Institute

Net, loyalty programs produce very slight loyalty effects and do little to drive actual growth. When you take into account the cost of running such programs, in most cases there will be a negative impact on profit. Probably their most productive role is in building a database for further analysis of buying habits.

Mental and Physical availability

One of the key principles in Marketing is to make a brand easy to buy. This requires not just mental availability (i.e. saliency) but also physical availability (i.e. distribution).

Mental Availability – Brands are a very small part of people’s lives. Furthermore, it’s a very cluttered world, with lots of ‘impacts’ from TV, digital, etc vying of your attention (c300 ads a day). The typical supermarket stocks over 30,000 products. We simply do not have the time nor capacity to assess every option, so our brains tend to ‘satisfice’ – i.e. find a brand ‘that will do’ rather than necessarily be ‘the best’. The greater the range of choice the more likely we will satisfice (as brand choice becomes increasingly difficult). Thus a lot of brand loyalty is passive not active. Instead buyers are active rejectors of other brands (as too complex/difficult to assess so chose not to consider them as their current choice is satisfactory). Our brains naturally screen out a lot of information that impinges on our senses. Therefore a brand has to do something spectacular to be noticed.

Academia assumes we make conscious decisions in our brand choice (based on brand features and brand image) from a wide array of possible options. Yet we know in practice this overstates the role of features and brand image. Buyers do not consistently recall the same things about a brand. Many other factors affect what we remember. Furthermore consumers do not survey all options on the market. Finally many other factors outside the brand features and image will influence decision- making. Sometimes a customer is feeling extravagant, sometimes frugal, sometimes patriotic. Thus there is less predicability in decision making than the academics and research companies suggest.

So why are some brands more popular than others? It’s to do with the fact that certain brands are recalled more easily than others. Since the biggest growth opportunity comes from light users and non users the key is to get these two groups to think of your brand more often.

In the brain there are nodes of information associated with the brand (e.g. McDonald’s will have hamburgers, the golden arches etc). These links keep being refreshed through experiences such as restaurant visibility, visiting, consuming, advertising etc. The more extensive and fresher the network of memory association about a brand, the greater the brand’s saliency. The more these memories can be triggered in everyday situations, the more likely the brand will be recalled. The more distinctive these brand assets, the greater the chance to stand out and be recalled.

Physical availability – Physical availability means making a brand easy to buy. Even if you recall it, if it is not on sale in the store (or out of stock) that potential sale is lost. It also includes hours of availability and ease of purchase (such as finance). The bigger the brand, the greater the likelihood it will be available everywhere.

Research has shown the key ways to help build mental and physical availability are: Broadening distribution, Gaining a new distribution channel, Consistent use of the brand’s distinctive assets, Broad reach media, Gaining shelf space, Broad range of product varieties, pack formats and sizes.

Coupons, price promotions, pack changes and loyalty programs are unlikely to build mental and physical availability.

Unknown or risky strategies include advertising that contains new information, competitions, temporary product variants and suspense advertising (where the brand name is hidden)


The seven simple rules for marketing:

  1. Reach – Continuously reach ALL buyers of your category with both broad reach comms and physical distribution.
  2. Make it easy – Ensure the brand is made as easy to buy as possible – be it availability, delivery, parking, pack sizes, ease of finance etc.
  3. Get noticed – Be salient. Be distinctive. Use emotions.
  4. Build brand memory assets – We ignore things that do not fit our ‘map of reality’. When we try to re-position a brand, it takes a lot of investment to cut against the inertia of the past memory structures. Therefore it’s often more effective to work with what you already have. If you are launching new things, it is best to link it back to existing known concepts.
  5. Create and use distinctive brand assets – Brands helps us ‘short-circuit’ the laborious task of decision-making. But the brand must first be recalled. Distinctive brand assets (such as ‘The Jolly Green Giant’, The PG Tips Chimps, L’Oreal’s, ‘Because you’re worth it’ etc. all help provide memorable hooks that make the brand stand out and hence be recalled easier. If your brand does not have one, then it needs to create one (and then invest long-term behind it).
  6. Be consistent yet fresh – Remain faithful to the existing memory structures/ distinctive brand assets – and keep them fresh. You need to keep telling the old story time and time again – but in new and engaging ways. Likewise, avoid the common marketing temptation to change things.
  7. Stay competitive – don’t give a reason NOT to buy – A large part of selection is the process of de-selection (i.e. what you will not consider). A brand is easier to buy the more times it has been bought (and the more a brand gets rejected, the less likely it is to get bought). So be careful you do not start to create barriers to purchase (be it physical or mental availability or some features). A brand spends so much time focusing on why people should buy it, they forget to focus on what puts people off buying it.


This for me is one of the most important marketing books of the past decade. Clearly, its principles need to be validated for your brands and category.

One of the big areas I struggle with is the statistics – Mediums and averages always disguise the truth. For all brands there will be loyalist and advocates at one end and dismissers at the other. Thus we must be careful not to paint a picture of all brands and all consumers being the same merely because the way numbers work, will push everything back to the average.

If this was a ‘scientific’ paper I think there would be a cry for more evidence to really support his claim (and likely the need to ‘disprove’ any counter evidence). Thus I feel he has certainly opened up the debate about the need for more empirical evidence and challenged a large number of myths.

That said, I do notice I find it hard to accept some of the principles he challenges (maybe because I am so committed to those and so have convinced myself of their veracity). For example, the view about segmentation, and insights I find it hard to completely buy (and so challenge the maths to disprove his theory – because I do not want to believe it!). Likewise I notice there are some things I believe in (such as the greater power of TV versus social media) and so easily drift over the data without challenging it.

I therefore think we need to be ‘open’ to many of these challenges but also set up testing programmes to check some of these hypotheses for our own brands.

Brain for hire copy

Posted in Advertising, Brands, Business strategy, Marketing | Leave a comment

2015 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

Madison Square Garden can seat 20,000 people for a concert. This blog was viewed about 66,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Madison Square Garden, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Layout 1

Summarised by Paul Arnold – Strategic Planner, Facilitator and Trainer –




We are lousy decision makers – we make faulty judgements.

The original views of humans being ‘econs’ whereby we make perfect decisions through weighing up the pros and cons of each decisions has been shown to be palpably wrong. Instead we make decisions upon limited information (What you see is all there is – WYSIATI). Furthermore we can easily be seduced by emotion and seemingly irrelevant information in our decision-making.



In the previous millennia, social scientists and economists assumed that people were generally rational in their thinking and that most of the time our thinking was sound. However, recent work by neuroscientists and behavioural economists have shown that we don’t think logically. Instead we are unconsciously biased in our thinking which means many times our decisions are flawed. Some of the key reasons for this are:

1) We rely on short-cuts and general rules of thumb (heuristics) which are sometimes inaccurate for the situation at hand.

2) We are heavily influenced by what we can immediately recall when making decisions – and only what is ‘in field’ at the time is used to make decisions (A concept we will return to called WYSIATI – What you see is all there is).

3) Emotions and cognition (i.e. perception) easily derail our rational decision making.
4) We often answer an easier question than the difficult question posed (e.g. ‘Should I invest in Ford?’ gets answered instead by the simpler question, ‘Do I like Ford cars?’)

The problem is these happen unconsciously. Raising them to consciousness can help a bit but we are still prey to many of their effects (a bit like visual illusions, we know what’s going on but still get caught by them).

To help understand the weaknesses with our cognition, Kahnemen devised a metaphor of two parts of the brain – System 1 and System 2 (NB you cannot dissect the brain and find these two parts neatly divided into the different hemispheres).

System 1 & System 2 Thinking

The brain has two ways of working: System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is primitive, unconscious, runs automatically (and cannot be turned off). It’s emotional, intuitive, powerful, fast, impatient and impulsive. It can work on many issues/ levels at the same time. It uses little energy, quickly creates meaning out of things and is easily influenced.

System 2 is linked to the Neo Cortex. It has conscious attention (normally running at a low level but then gets attuned onto specific issues). It is rational, methodical, cautious, has small processing power, limited capacity and is single focused. It is slow, a heavy energy user, is not able to control System 1 well and is lazy. System 2 can override System 1 under normal conditions but if System 1 is highly fired up (e.g. through the power of emotions) or System 2 is tired or pre-occupied then it fails to be able to control System 1. Furthermore, System 2 is very good at making comparisons but does not perform well under pressure.

System 1 – the state of unconscious flow – Most of our actions happen unconsciously. Csikzentmihalyi has defined the state of ‘flow’ as a place of unconscious competence, where the rest of the world melts away and you lose the sense of time and become lost in the experience. It seems that we perform our best when we move from conscious control to unconscious effortless competence.


System 1’s flawed instant response – Q: A bat and ball costs $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

In cases like the above System 1 jumps to an intuitive answer ($0.1) when the real answer is $0.05. System 2, being lazy, does not intervene unless steps are taken to activate it (e.g. when told $0.1 is wrong). Even very intelligent students fail this test.

Hoodwinking the brain by distracting System 2 – If you distract the conscious System 2 brain, then it is less able to control the impulses from the System 1. When System 2 is distracted, it allows other statements of falsehood to sneak through the System 1 brain (System 1 will believe almost anything!). This is why storytelling works so well as System 2 is engaged in the logic of the story allowing the moral to sink straight into System 1. System 2’s ability to control System 1 also diminishes with tiredness, drinking or conscious mental effort. Furthermore, the trouble with self-control is it’s tiring – being ‘on guard’ needs a lot of energy.

When people are offered two desserts: a chocolate cake or a virtuous fruit salad, they are more likely to choose the chocolate cake when they have to complete some mental arithmetic.

In a study with eight parole judges, they found no prisoners were granted parole just before lunch (when their System 2 energy was low) but the rate after lunch was 65% of cases (versus an average of 35%).


Another way to increase plausibility is to wrap your statement in other known truths – a silly example is ‘A chicken has 4 legs’ takes a little while longer to decipher its falseness than ‘A chicken has three legs’. Or ‘How many animals did Moses take with him on the Ark?

Also if you use high quality paper and clear print it makes it cognitively easier to read and so less likely to be judged. Also try to make the language more memorable by building rhythm, alliteration or repetition (We shall fight on the beaches etc).

Finally, quotes are more credible if it comes from a name that is easy to pronounce.


In experiments, ‘A fault confessed is half redressed’ was more easily recalled and thought more meaningful than ‘A fault admitted is half redressed’.

Easily pronounced words create more favourable reactions. For the first week after floating on the stock market, Companies with easier to pronounce names do better than those with less ! easy to pronounce names.

How to kick System 2 into action – System 2 is lazy and will often not get involved until triggered to – for example by making the font difficult to read.

The Criterion Referenced Tests (CRT) fool people because they suggest an intuitive System 1 answer. However when told they are wrong, System 2 jumps in and quickly finds the real answer.

Q: If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long will it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?

When the questions were set in light grey, System 2 jumped in and the respondent’s wrong answers dropped to 35% whilst in normal black font 90% of student made at least one mistake.

(A: 5 mins)

Some people have better developed System 2’s to control their System 1 thinking – Scientists have found specific genes that influence attention and our ability to control our emotions. For some they have a more developed System 2. However, System 1 dominant people instead tend to be more easily influenced (with little critical judgement), are impulsive, impatient and keen to receive immediate gratification (thus leading to ill- considered decisions and judgements). They are also prepared to pay twice as much for overnight delivery of a book than others!

Mischel offered four-year olds a choice between a small reward now (One Oreo) or a larger reward (two Oreo’s) in 15 minutes. About half the children managed the task (mainly by distraction techniques). 15 years later, they found those who resisted had greater cognitive and personal self-control (as well as having developed improved IQ scores) (http://


Cognitive bias (What You See Is All There Is)

The way our two thinking systems work can lead to a wide range of flawed perceptions and hence decision making:

WYSIATI – We often make decisions on just a small subset of information available. If we do not retrieve useful information at the time of decision-making it may as well not exist. The trouble is our brain will only use the information it has immediately available to make its decision (A concept called WYSIATI – What you see is all there is).

We do not use all the information available to us to arrive at our assessment of a situation. Research into painful medical procedures found patients assessed the overall experience of the operation by two elements – the peak level of pain experienced and the level of pain at the end of the operation (with the length of the procedure not being a key factor).

When the Valdez oil spill happened, people were approached for donations to save oil covered birds. In one sample they were told the fund was to save 2,000 birds, another 20,000 birds and the third 2m birds. The number did not dramatically affect average donations ($80, $78 and $88).

Availability – Depending how easy it is to retrieve information on a subject will influence the quality of our decision (as WYSIATI). For example we believe there is greater divorce rates amongst actors and actresses because we hear about them more often. We think dying in a plane crash is more likely than it is – especially after a much publicised one. Furthermore, we recall our own activities and effort better than other people’s (a key problem in marriage or work based disputes is we under-emphasise the activity of the other person, and feel our part has not been recognised enough by the others).

If you ask a person to list 6 times when they were assertive and then ask them how assertive they are, they will believe they are more assertive than if not primed. Interesting if you ask for 12 examples, people see themselves to be less assertive because it’s more difficult to recall 12 than 6. Thus it’s fluency of recall rather than absolute number that is the key.

Cognitive ease – The easier it is to tangibly recreate the event in our minds (especially visually) the greater the chance it will be ‘in play’. Vividness increases its saliency. We find it easier when things are more tangible and less easy when kept conceptual – for example it’s easier to answer ‘Out of 100 people how many…’ than ‘What percentage…’ as we get a clearer representation in our heads.

Example: ‘A vaccine that protects children from a fatal disease carries a 0.001% risk’ vs ‘One of 100,000 vaccinated children will be permanently disabled’. The second statement conjures up a clearer image in your mind of a disabled child (and we choose not to picture the 99,999 healthy children). Such presentation significantly influences the decision of parents to treat.


Denominator neglect – Focusing on one thing takes our eye off other things. Thus what we focus on is in the ‘field of play’ and other things are consequently pushed ‘out of play’ and hence out of influence (as WYSIATI). The invisible gorilla video is a good example of how our conscious mind when focused on one thing can easily miss other things (http://

Rare events – We overestimate the likelihood of improbable but highly emotional events (and often underestimate more common events), as the intensity of emotions make us recall something more vividly. This then over-influences our decisions.


When people are asked to assess the frequency of deaths, they over-inflate events like tornadoes, lightening attacks, and under-inflate deaths from diabetes and asthma.

Conversely if an improbable event is not easily recalled then we tend to under-estimate its likelihood).

What’s on the field is in play – A further extension of WYSIATI is ‘What’s on the field is in play’ i.e. seemingly irrelevant data gets used. For example, if you put things side by side System 1 will try to create a connection. If you add more detail you increase plausibility.

A mock jury were given a greater, more vivid description of the events from one side (with no extra relevant factual information) and it dramatically influenced the verdict.

Less is more – Too much information distracts us from the important – Decision-making is usually easier with less information than more because System 2 cannot cope with lots of information and easily gets confused. Evidence suggests that seemingly few criteria can account for a large degree of predictiveness. Dawes amusingly suggested that marital stability could be predicted accurately by just two factors: Frequency of lovemaking minus Frequency of quarrels – simple rules are best!


Paul Meehl demonstrated that clinical predictions based on statistical analysis of a few key metrics were more accurate than clinician’s subjective impressions based on a 45 minute interview, backed up with a raft of other information. This study has been replicated in numerous other situations. In 60% of studies, algorithms have been shown to be more effective at predictions than people.

Dr Apgar develop a simple 5 test rule to assess the health of a new born child – the now famous Apgar score.

In an experiment where a mock jury was shown one side of a dispute (even though they could easily have worked out the counter argument), just hearing the one side dramatically influenced their decision-making. Furthermore there were more certain of their decision than those who heard both side.

We know that seemingly irrelevant stimuli can influence us, whilst a computer is not distracted, and instead remains steadfastly focused on only the critical issues. Experts place too much weight on their intuitions, downgrading the importance of the key pieces of evidence – emotions steer us away from a purely rational response.

How to hire a person – select up to 6 key traits that are key to success in the role. Ideally they should be independent with little overlap. Develop some factual questions to assess each. Upon answer, convert them into a 1-5 scale. Then add up the scores and cross compare versus the other candidates. Vow to take the person with the highest score irrespective on how you feel. Resist the urge to ‘re-evaluate’ to change the rankings!

The wisdom of crowds – In some tasks people are very bad at predicting but the wisdom of the crowd is better.

Get a large number of people to independently guess the number of pennies in a jar, and the average is often close to the real answer.

Priming – We can easily be nudged to think in certain ways as we draw upon our unconscious associations.

Priming – We can easily be nudged to think in certain ways as we draw upon our unconscious associations.

People were asked to recall a situation they were ashamed of. When asked to fill in the word S_ _ P they typically said ‘soap’ not ‘soup’.

Priming does not just happen with words – your actions and emotions can be primed as well.

Psychologist, Bargh gave students a set of words to turn into a sentence. For one group he scrambled words associated with the elderly (such as Florida, forgetful, bald, grey, and wrinkled). They then had to take their test scores down the corridor. He found they walked slower than the other test group (yet none of them were aware of the ‘old’ theme).

Encouraging people to nod or shake their heads will prime then to agreeing or disagreeing to a statement.

Voting for improved school funding goes up when the polling station is held inside a school.

 In a university kitchen, they operated an honesty box system for for the teas and coffees. Over a ten week period a different image was placed above the honesty box. Alternate weeks showed either flowers or eyes. When eyes were displayed, the contribution to the honesty box was three times higher than flowers.

The symbols in a culture will unconsciously prime certain behaviour traits. So a culture full of statues of leaders prompts a different behaviour from one full of Christian images or symbols of wealth.

Decision-making by frames of comparison – We make judgements via comparisons. When buying something we find it easier to assess it alongside something else in the same category. Our world is broken into categories – and we use norms in that category to help us make decisions. However, we can easily be misguided depending upon the frame and comparative context.


What do you prefer? Apples or Peaches? Vs What do you prefer? Apples or Steak?

A man was shot in the arm in a convenience store. Consider two scenarios: 1) It was his usual store, 2) his usual store was closed for a funeral, so he went to this other shop instead.
Q: should compensation be different?
Whilst in theory the compensation should be the same, when people are given either scenario, we see a different level of compensation being awarded than if they see both. Because we live in a world of WYSIATI, not seeing the other side means we only make a decision based on that limited amount of information.

Imagine a situation where two people change to more fuel efficient cars:
A: Adam switches from a car that does 12mpg to one that does 14mpg.
B: Beth switches from a car that does 30mpg to one that does 40mpg.
We all instinctively think Beth is doing a better job for the planet, but over 10,000 miles, Adam’s actions has saved 119 gallons whilst Beth has just saved 83 gallons. Thus we get hoodwinked by the frame of mpg rather than the more relevant frame of gallons saved.

Context determines meaning – In the example below the image

ABC121314(I3) in the middle is the same, but in one we read it as a B (as it is surrounded by A and C whilst in the other we read it as 13 (as surrounded by 12 and 14). Thus we can easily jump to the (wrong) conclusions.

First impression bias – First impressions are the most influential and we find it much more difficult to change our minds once initially set upon a certain course of thinking. Furthermore, the mere sequencing of information can affect our perceptions.


What do you think of Alan and Ben?:

Alan: Intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn and envious Ben: Envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious and intelligent. Research shows that Alan is liked more than Ben.

When marking exam papers, if the first question the candidate answers is good, then we are more influenced to mark the rest of their questions on average higher than if their first question was poor.

Anchors – Random information can ‘anchor’ our thinking. For example, in purchasing something (like a house), we will be heavily influenced by the first price suggested.

Half the respondents were asked ‘Is the tallest redwood less or more than 120 feet?’ The other half, ‘Is the tallest redwood less or more than 1200 feet?’ When asked to guess the height of the tallest redwood, those primed with a low number (120 feet) guessed on average of 282 feet and those anchored to the 1200 feet guessed 844 feet – a difference of 562 feet based on a spurious piece of data.

When an oil tanker spilled its load in the Pacific Ocean, an experiment was run asking for donations. When no primer was given the average donation was $64. But when asked, ‘Would you be willing to donate $5 to the cause?’ the average offered was $20. When set a higher anchor of $400, the average sum raised was $143 – i.e. a $123 difference.

In a supermarket, Campbell’s soup was on offer with a sign above it. On some days it said, ‘Offer limited to 12 cans per person’. On other days it read, ‘No limit per person’. On the days with the limit, they sold on average 7 more cans per person – twice as many when there was no limit.

Even experts can get fooled

Estate agents were asked to price a property. One group of agents were shown a previous much higher value – and the other group were shown a previous much lower value. This resulted in a 41% difference in the valuations.

In negotiations, it is recommended that rather than counter with an equally outlandish offer which creates often an unbridgeable gap, instead threaten to storm out unless that opening offer is taken off the table (as need to make it clear to them and most importantly yourself that that will not be a figure the negotiations will be anchored around).

The familiarity effect – We find that familiarity makes it much easier to accept something (our critical faculties drop with familiarity – hence the power of advertising or how a politician keeps repeating a denial – after a while a repeated falsehood becomes the accepted truth).

Answering an easier question – Human beings are to independent thinking as cats are to swimming. We can do it, but we prefer not to. The brain is lazy and rather than answering the real question, will often answer the question it has the answer to. System 1 finds an easier answer so System 2 does not have to work out the real answer (and because System 2 is lazy it does not impose much scrutiny on the veracity of the answer given by System 1).

‘How much am I prepared to pay for this?’ is replaced by an (easier) emotional one such as ‘How much do I like this?’

‘How happy are you in your life these days?’ becomes ‘What is my mood right now?’
‘How popular will the President be in 6 months time becomes ‘How popular is the President now?’


Moods affects our cognition – What we like/dislike affects our beliefs (because we let how we feel about something influence what we think about it). When happy we are more intuitive and System 1 is in control. When distracted by negative emotion System 2 becomes more controlling.

System 1 – Making associations and meanings – System 1 creates associations to help us make sense of our world. This can lead on some occasions to making false associations.

Correlations ≠ Causation – In Black Swan, Nassim Taleb mentions how bond prices increased on the day of Saddam Hussein’s capture. The two events were linked (when it was not the case in reality). System 1 does not try to assess all possible information or all possible explanations but jumps at the first one that makes sense to it.


Heider & Simmel used a video of animated geometric shapes that seemingly interact. People developed a story from the movements of a bullying scenario. Interesting Autistics do not create the associative story but see it for what it is ( v=VTNmLt7QX8E).

Kidney cancer is lowest in rural communities – by presenting these two facts together we create a causal relationship such as healthier living, better quality food etc – when in reality this is not the reason.

Under normal frequent situations, when System 1 jumps to conclusions it can be accurate. However, it becomes more risky when we are in infrequent/unusual situations as we often draw upon our experiences in other situations and mistakenly try to apply it to the new situation.

Storytelling – System 1 loves storytelling as it helps makes sense of things. Storytelling is therefore not a culturally imposed phenomenon, it’s one of our basic core programs we run.

Confidence does not come from the data – it comes from the story we create around the data. The better the story ‘fits’ the ‘facts’ the more believable the story. Furthermore, we will then ignore data that conflicts with our story (as the story becomes the ‘truth’).

Nassim Taleb introduced the concept of narrative fallacy in his book Black Swan. A narrative fallacy is a past flawed story that still shapes current perceptions. The more concrete the story, the more believable it is (even if it’s not true). What tends to happen is a story is created around a few ‘nodes’ which help explain those activities. We then chose to ignore other bits of information that do not fit the story. Furthermore we extrapolate via the halo effect (i.e. if the story is a positive one we then want to see all other aspects as positive – good people only do good things….as this helps keep the story coherent and simple). Such is the desire of System 1 to make sense of things it can too easily create causal narrative that is factually untrue. But the power of the story seduces even System 2.

The Mathematics Of Cognition

Misleading by numbers – Numbers feel authentic and credible, but we can easily be misled by them. Large samples are more compelling due to their data size – but the trouble with them is they flatten out the data and create less anomalies. Thus the outliers in data gets suppressed (unlike in smaller samples). Often we ignore the impact of sampling variance on research studies (especially if the data tells a good story). System 1 suppresses doubt – it is naive and accepts things at face value. Likewise, if it makes sense, then System 2 rarely intervenes.

We are pattern seekers, trying to find order in the world. Our love of finding causal relationships forces us to often make poor decisions. When we detect a pattern in random data (such as a gambling machine) we will believe there is an order as we find it difficult to accept the concept of randomness and no order. In reality randomness does create random order.


Research into sports people so called ‘hot hands’ has been shown to be false.

Research into successful schools found a correlation with size of schools. This makes intuitive sense as we can build a strong narrative why this should be the case. This led the Gates Foundation to invest over $1.7bn into developing small schools. If the statisticians had investigated the worst performing schools they would have found that bad schools are also more likely to be smaller size as well (i.e. this is not the causal factor).

Base-line data – In an experiment people were asked to rank the likely course a student would do at university. Because they did not know anything about him, they defaulted to the overall popularity of courses. Next they were given a pen portrait of his personality. Drawing on this evidence they re-shifted their answer according to his traits. In theory this all makes sense. However, Kahneman argues that this is a mathematical error as the likely course will still remain most determined by the popularity of the courses overall – i.e. we make a sub- optimal more emotional decision based on System 1 and not a logical System 2 decision. We fall into the stereotype heuristic trap which dominates and clouds our logical thinking (as System 1 wants to make things tidy and organised). When in doubt we should therefore make decisions based on what is called base line data – i.e. probability data (as System 1 is more than likely to lead us astray).

The film, Moneyball demonstrated how professional baseball scouts made poor decisions based on irrelevant information (such as how someone behaved off-field). Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s ignored this and instead relied on pure data of percentage to reach first base. This allowed him to buy good performing players at discounted prices (

Regression to the mean – Our performance on anything tends to aggregate around an average – i.e. sometimes we perform better and other times less well, but over a longer period of time we will level out at our average. Thus when things are going much better than expected, we often then see a dip in performance. Likewise when we see a significant underperformance against our norm, we tend to move back closer to the line of average. This phenomenon of regression to the mean has been observed in organisational performance as well (the under-performing companies do better and the over-performing companies drop). The trouble is we are bad predictors and ignore this principle. So if one golfer shoots 66 and another 77, when asked who will score better the next day, we assume a continuation of form (as we make the misguided judgement that the scores are reflective of talent – but we ignore the regression to norm). Instead the best predictor is reference to their base line – so 66 could well do worse on day 2 and 77 do better.

The Sports Illustrated jinx (that a sports person featured on the cover will under-perform the following year) is not a jinx but the reality of regression to the mean. You need to have ! massively over-performed to be on the front of Sports Illustrated so….

Our Misguided View On Performance

Luck – Luck plays a BIG part in success. Kahneman’s model for success is ‘Talent + luck’. Great success = ‘A little more talent’ + ‘A lot more luck’.

Confidence bias – the myth of control – We tend to exaggerate our ability to control events around us and hence be overly optimistic about what we can achieve, discounting the other external factors that can slow down a project (especially competitor’s activity). Many organisations fail as they have an over-inflated belief in their ability to control situations (luck again plays a big part in a company’s success or failure – i.e. a company is never in total control of its destiny). Likewise the CEO. Just because on paper a company has a ‘strong’ CEO does not mean s/he will be successful as a large proportion of their fate (i.e. luck/no luck) is outside their control. Most of the examples of excellent companies studied in books like ‘Built to last’ and ‘In search of excellence’ have receded over time (again down to the principle of regression to the mean). Thus we have consistently over-exaggerated the effect of a CEO’s leadership ability and therefore followed illusory actions to mimic their so called leadership traits and processes – ignoring the real impact of timing and luck.

Optimism – the driving force of capitalism – Optimism is good. In life optimists are more cheerful, more popular, more resilient to dealing with hardships, and less likely to become depressed, and hence tend to be healthier (to the point that they even live longer). Optimists are the achievers, the visionaries, the entrepreneurs and the leaders in life – they make things happen around them. Their self-confidence breeds faith and following in others. When there is an issue, rather than giving up, they believe it can be solved and this perseverance helps them win on through.

Most people are born optimists. Amusingly, most people genuinely believe they are superior to most others on many different traits.


90% of drivers believe they are better than average (as do teachers).

Supporters of basketball teams in the playoffs were asked to rate the probability of their team winning the playoff. As to be expected each team over-rated their chances. When all the scores were added up they came to 240%.

The trouble is optimism is a highly socially valued way of being – it is more acceptable to agree and support than to challenge and pull down an idea – leading to a ‘collective blindness’. It can also lead to bold forecasts and timid decisions.

So how to overcome this disease of overconfidence? Get the team together and start with the premise: “Imagine that we are a year in the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Now write a brief history of how and why this happened.”

The illusion of predictions – Nassim Taleb in Black Swan points out our tendency to build and maintain a narrative that makes sense of the past. This makes it difficult for us to accept our limits of forecasting ability (i.e. because we have ‘made sense’ of the past, we assume we can predict the future).

System 1 jumps to conclusions with very little evidence – and we hold to these conclusions with a staggering degree of confidence.

When assessing the soldiers in the Israeli army, Kahneman and his staff independently observed the behaviours of the soldiers and then together agreed who were the excellent soldiers. The trouble was their ability to detect who did become the excellent soldiers was little better than random luck yet they still remained locked in the process (as they believed in their personal ability to predict success).

Likewise we see this in the selling and buying of stock. In theory everyone has access to the same information, so what makes one trader think the price is under-inflated and another think it is over-inflated? Why does one investor predict that the price will go up and another that the price will go down? Again this is the illusion of belief as in theory the market works on perfect price (i.e. all there is to know has already been taken account into the prevailing price).

Odean, from UC Berkeley studied the trading records of 10,000 brokerage accounts over a 7 year period (163,000 trades). On average the shares the traders sold did better than those they bought by 3.2% per year. They found the most active traders had the worst results – i.e. doing nothing would have yielded a greater return!


It seems the illusion (especially amongst men) that they know better than the market is wrong (indeed women who are less prone to this effect tend to be on average better investors).

The evidence from more than 50 years of research in this field is that for the large majority of fund managers is no better than rolling dice – i.e. luck. Typically 2/3rds of mutual funds under-perform the overall market in any given year. Thus so called ‘experts’ do not seem to have mastered the ability of future prediction.

Tetlock interviewed 284 people who made a living by being political and economic pundits. He asked them to assess the probabilities on certain future events in their specialised fields. In all he gathered 80,000 predictions. Comparing the results with what actually happened he found that the experts performed worse than chance – i.e. ‘dart throwing monkeys’ would have performed better. The reason is when a person becomes ‘an expert’ (based on past experience) they assume an unrealistic level of confidence in predicting the future. The reality is the world is unpredictable and we are therefore all weak at it – especially over longer time frames and dynamic situations.

When radiographers were given the same X-rays they contradicted themselves on 20% of occasions. Overall 41 studies in different areas have drawn the same conclusions that experts are inconsistent.

Assessing Risk

The power of loss – We are genetically wired/evolutionarily adapted to be more aware of risk than opportunities. Hence we do not like loss, so we also dislike risk (and are prepared to pay a premium to avoid loss).

When people are asked, how much they would need to win in order to risk losing $100, the ! average is $200 – i.e. we value a loss at twice that of a gain.

We also know this level of unease over risk increases dramatically the greater the amount at stake (cf the ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’ effect – the greater the prize the less likely you take risks with your answers). Thus the psychological value of a gamble is not focused on the possible positive uplift but more focused on the potential loss – i.e. it’s more about what is at stake to lose than what is to gain. Thus to encourage people to ‘bet’ more you need to focus more on minimising the loss rather than boosting the gain.

The threat need not be real to attract out attention.

Experiments show that negative words are picked up quicker than other more benign words. Negativity is noticed more, influences us more and stays with us longer.

Emotions are processed rapidly and unconsciously – hence why we can have irrational fears as the conscious System 2 brain is never consulted!

Animals and humans fight harder to defend their territory than to gain new territory.

Loss aversion is a powerful holding force that drives stability and certainty in our lives, our relationships, our employment and our societies.

Gotman, a German psychologists estimated that a stable relationship needs good interactions ! to outnumber bad ones by a ratio of 5 to 1.

We are driven more powerfully to avoid losses than to achieve gains – the aversion of failure is stronger than the desire to excel (hence people often just hit their goals rather than strive to exceed them).


Economic theory would suggest that a taxi driver would work many hours on a rainy day and then take time-off on slower days. Instead on slower days taxi drivers stay out longer to hit their daily target and then on rainy days go home early.
Professional golfers putt more accurately for a par than for a birdie (they analysed 2.5m putts to prove this).


Prospect theory – When all options are bad, then we are more prepared to gamble. For example when offered the following: Lose $900 for sure or take a 90% chance to lose $1000, then people take the gamble. But when offered the choice: Get $900 for sure or 90% chance to get $1000, people opt for the sure reward of $900. The disadvantages looms larger than the advantages. Thus the focusing on the negative prospects influences our decision (i.e. nothing to lose versus everything to lose).

The endowment effect – What we own we value more highly than things we do not own. Endowment effect is not universal and is more extreme on rare items.


Avid fans for a concert who have a ticket for a sell-out concert will only be prepared to sell the ticket for six times the original cost.

In a series of experiments in the buying and selling of unique, specially decorated university ! coffee mugs, they found the average selling price was twice the average buying price.

Finally, be aware that in negotiations, it’s often what people sense they have to ‘give-up-on’ that causes the sticking points in the discussions.

Probability versus certainty – When we make a complex decisions System 1 unconsciously assigns different weights of importance to the different factors we need to take into account. Changing the weight of importance can therefore affect the final decision.

The problem is we get seduced by different levels of probability. 0% -> 5% (i.e. ‘nothing’ to a possibility of ‘something’) and 95% -> 100% (i.e. ‘uncertainty’ to ‘certainty’) are both more highly valued that say 5%->10% or 85% -> 95%. We therefore overweight our chance of winning when the probabilities are low but underweight our chance of winning when they are high. We are therefore prepared to pay a premium to eliminate risk altogether.

You have inherited $1m but your stepsister is contesting the will in court. Your lawyer believes you have a 95% chance of winning. The day before it goes to court, a risk adjuster contacts you ! to buy the case from you for $910,000 – most people take it because they fear the loss.


At 95% we fear the loss more than we do if we just have a 5% chance of winning. We will pay this premium to reduce risk.

Hence life insurance plays of these fears of loss and risk, as does plea bargaining. The lottery is a very small chance of winning but you are prepared to gamble the relatively small sum for a big win.

In an experiment they found that mothers were prepared to pay three times more for a product that eliminated risk versus a product that just had a minor level of risk.

We tend to attach values to gains and losses more than to what is at stake. This led Tversky and Kahneman to propose the four fold pattern within their Prospect theory:





(Fear of disappointment so will accept unfavourable settlement e.g. a 95% chance of winning $100,000

(Hope to avoid loss so reject a favourable settlement)
e.g. 95% chance of losing $10,000


(Hope of a large gain so reject a favourable settlement)
e.g. 5% chance of winning $100,000

(Fear of a large loss so accept unfavourable settlement)
e.g. 5% chance of losing $10,000

Spreading the risk – When Paul Samuelson, a famous economist was asked if he would accept a bet on a toss of a coin in which he could win $200 or lose $100. His response was to decline on the grounds that he would ‘feel’ the loss of $100 more than the benefits of $200. However, in a perfect twist, he said he would take the bet on for 100 goes.

When we spread our exposure to risk over a greater range of activities, we will more likely come back to the expected norms. With one toss we could more easily lose $100 but over 100 we would undoubtedly win a lot of money on these odds. Thus Kahneman recommends we see these ‘little decisions’ not as isolated risk events but instead see them as all part of the 100 throws. One of the reasons for this is we do not compute multiple issues well – instead we tend to focus on just one aspect and allow that to influence our decisions (a form of finding an easier question to answer).

Thus taking risks pays-off in the long run even of it does not pay-out on each event.

Day to day examples are to never pay for extended warranties (accept you will loose on some but gain in the long run by saving the premium) and not to take the add-ons when buying insurance.


When 25 top managers in one company were asked if they would be prepared to support a project that had equal chance of success or failure, with the upside if successful to double the capital. None of the executives were willing to take the risk. Interestingly, the CEO said he would accept the risk from all of them as he saw the broader frame and knew that if everyone took the risk, over the 25 projects they would win out.


Mental accounting – We mentally hold money in different compartments in our brain. and so treat money differently (when in truth a $ is a $). For example we may be happy to run up credit on a card yet not take money out of the school savings account (even though we are paying higher interest on the card than we earn in the savings account).


A: A women has bought two $80 theatre tickets. When she gets there, she discovers she has lost them, Will she buy two more?
B: A women goes to the theatre with $160 in her wallet, intending to buy two tickets. When she gets there she discovers she has lost the cash. Will she still buy the tickets?

Most think A will not but B will as she treats cash differently from the purchased tickets.

Sunk costs – We are tied down by sunk costs rather than seeing that any future decisions are free of those sunk costs (as any decision made now will not bring those sunk costs back).

A company has already invested $50m in a project that is overrunning in time and costs. An additional $60m is needed to secure its completion (even though expected returns are likely to now be lower than originally expected). There is another project that requires the same level of funding that suggests larger returns. Most companies are so blinded by the sunk costs they cannot value the two projects rationally and so will usually invest more money in the failing project (as they cannot be seen to have ‘failed’).


The sunk costs fallacy keeps people in poor jobs, in bad houses, under performing investments and unhappy marriages.

Fear of financial loss – You would assume we would be more rational about financial decisions but reality suggests otherwise. We hate losing money and will try to mitigate against it – which can mean we make poor decisions. Take for example the holding of two stocks. One is over performing and has exceeded the purchase price, whilst the other you would have to sell for a loss. The logic is to hold onto the over performing share, and ‘cut your losses’ and sell the under performing one. However, we get ‘anchored’ to the original purchase price of the share so we hold onto the poor performing share in the hope of eventually getting our money back (and instead sell the good share). Yet again we view each share independent of each other and thus make poorer decisions than if we viewed them all from a broader frame. We see this also in the field of gambling as well where people try to win back their losses, and merely compound their losses.

Costs are not losses – Framing something as a loss creates greater emotional feelings. So when offered either a gamble that offers a 10% chance to win $95 and a 90% chance to lose $5 versus to buy a lottery ticket for $5 with a 10% chance to win $100 and a 90% chance to win nothing, most people opt for the lottery ticket as our brain reframes the same $5 as a cost not a loss.



Life as a story – It seems that when making judgements on broad issues like life our assessment of the quality of our life is not based on a thorough examination but only a small section of information available. As with the peak and end rule, a life well lived is often judged using the same criteria – we tend to look at the big events and our most immediate history (as those are the key ones we can remember – WYSIATI).

In an experiment describing a person’s life, one where an extra 5 years were lived, but were described as ‘pleasant, but less so than previous years’. They found that respondents judged the person’s life as being less complete when the extra 5 years were added on.

Subjects were invited to fill in a questionnaire about life satisfaction. However before they began they were asked to photocopy a piece of paper. Half of them found a dime beside the copier. This small (irrelevant) bit of positive luck caused a marked improvement of their ratings of their life!

Taking photos is increasing our modality of storing our memories – yet in many ways the stories around events (maybe triggered by the photos) is realistically the way we categorise and makes sense of our lives. The remembered life is rarely the sum of all the points in our life but rather the stories we create to make sense of it all. If we choose to tell a negative (or positive) story (irrespective of the complete facts), then that tends to imprint the overall experience as negative (or positive).

Thus we have two selves – the remembering self (who is making sense of our past through our stories we have created) and our current experiencing self (often just adding further chapters to the stories already created).

Defining happiness – The remembering self is not very accurate with the truth, so maybe it is a misguided notion to even ask people how satisfied they are with their lives. Instead it is better to focus on the here and now – i.e. ‘How happy are you right now?’ Kahneman suggests a simple measure of happiness as ‘Time spent doing things we want to do’ minus ‘Time spent doing things we do not want to do’.


In an experiment to map people’s happiness throughout a day they developed the ‘U’ index (higher the percentage the greater the time spent in an unpleasant state). For American women their U index differed throughout the day: 29% for the morning commute, 27% for work, 24% for looking after the children, 18% for housework, 12% for watching TV and 5% for sex. One of the key predictors of positive feelings during a day is contact with family or friends. On Gallup’s, ‘Ladder of life’, some of the key influencers of a good life include educational attainment, and religion, whilst the key negative was ill health.

We are born with a pre-disposition for well-being. People who appear equally fortunate in life vary greatly in how happy they are. Thus we return to our base line irrespective of our ills or fortunes.

Immediately after the accident Paraplegics feel understandable low, but as life returns to a new equilibrium they focus more on the differences than their new reality and so return to a similar level of happiness they had before the accident. Likewise people who win the lottery, eventually

return to close to their old state of happiness.

Setting (and then achieving) of goals appears to also be a key determinant of our happiness.

A study of 12,000 students found that those who had rated highly the statement ‘being very well-off financially’ as essential were shown to be more likely to have achieved financial success in their lives. It also helped with their life satisfaction if they had achieved their desired goals.

That said, above a certain amount of money ($75,000 in 2011) more money does not increase happiness. Whilst money does buy better pleasures, it does not buy greater happiness as people rapidly get used to new higher standards. It also reduces our ability to enjoy the small things in life.

!Likewise, a new car (or any big purchases) tends to only have a temporary lift as we quickly subsume it into our everyday life. Thus once we get used to something, it loses its ability to lift our emotions. One of the reasons cited why rich people are no happier is there is little major differential in the extra class of items they can buy.

However, joining a club or learning a new activity (be it learning the cello or playing tennis) where you constantly have new challenges or interactions is different and so is often more uplifting in the longer term as it cannot disappear easily into the backdrop tapestry of life.

A Few Final Thoughts


Just because we are not rational in our decision making, does not mean we are irrational. We are trying our best but sadly easily misguided. Thus we often need help when making bigger decisions (e.g. though use of computers or a number of people to filter the decision making process).

!Whilst unscrupulous people can take advantage of people thorough the fault lines of our decision-making, one can also use this to encourage positive actions such as pensions saving, organ donation and healthier eating (cf Nudge).

System 1 is sadly the origin of many of the errors we make. Unfortunately it’s difficult to educate and control. Furthermore just because we become more aware of these limitations does not stop us falling under their misguided spell. It’s easier with System 2 – when you become aware that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down and ask for help.



This book is dense. It is full of great insights into human frailty of decision-making. What is so good about this book is we have the architect of the theories and the experiments rather than a third party reporter (like Gladwell or Lehrer). But that closeness to the subject comes with a few problems.

Maybe quite harshly, this book feels a bit self-indulgent in that it goes into far too much depth – It gets lost in minutiae and over-labours points repeatedly. I believe he could easily have edited out 100 pages of unnecessary detail of discussion.

I also worry that people will read this book and assume they can manipulate others. Many of the experiments are isolated events which bear little reality to life (for example in the era of ease of access to information any time anywhere, we are less likely to be as negatively influenced). Thus some of the biases may have been over played.




If you are looking for an enjoyable, yet effective away-day
(be it brainstorming, vision & values, strategic brand building or teambuilding) maybe I can help?



Posted in Behaviour change, Behavioural Economics, Decision making, Leadership, Management, Negotiation, Persuasion/Influence, Uncategorized | Leave a comment